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Forgotten form of theatre comes out of the shadows

Photo by: Pha Lina
Actors rehearse a sbek por performace of the traditional Cambodian tale Preah Tinavong and Neang Pov.

KHAM Sokneang grasps two wooden sticks attached to a cow hide that has been cut into the shape of a young man and painted in bright colours. He holds the hide against a black screen and shakes it while he rehearses his lines for his role as Preah Tinavong, a character in the traditional Cambodian tale Preah Tinavong and Neang Pov.

The rehearsal was for a performance at Chaktomuk Theatre as part of the National Drama and Arts Festival, held from February18 to March 1 to mark the lead-up to National Culture Day, which falls on March 3.

Although Kham Sokneang, 31, has practiced many classical art forms as a professional in the past 17 years, he said he had to dig deep and use all of his talents for the Preah Tinavong and Neang Pov performance, rendered in a type of Cambodian shadow theatre called sbek por (colourful skin).

“While we are speaking, we have to shake the hide to show that the hide is also talking,” Kham Sokneang says, explaining the difficulty. “When we bow down, we have to make the hide bow down, but we still keep talking.”

He said sbek por got its name because the cow hides, after they are cut into the forms of the characters, are painted with bright colours. In other forms of shadow theatre – sbek thom (big hide) and sbek touch (small hides) – the hides are unpainted.

Sbek por hides are medium in size: smaller than sbek thom but bigger than sbek touch.

Sok Mom, a professor of art at the Department of Art and Culture, said that although he has often seen the painted cow hides hanging on walls as decoration, until recently he had never seen them used in a performance.

“Older people always talked about how they used to perform using the coloured hides, and now younger people have started using them again,” he said.

Sok Mom said sbek por performances differ from sbek touch and sbek thom because the actor plays a bigger role.

“The actor can be a performer or a hide holder,” he said. “While the hide is being held, it plays the role of the character. But often the hide is set aside and the actor appears on the stage to play the role.

“The actor has to wear the same clothes as the character depicted on the hide, because sometimes they come out on stage and play the character.”

Kham Sokneang originally performed in Preah Tinavong and Neang Pov last year when the Kok Thlok Association of Artists reintroduced sbek por to Cambodian audiences.

“Our difficulty in performing sbek por is that we have to look at the hide and shake it while we are narrating,” he said.

Moreover, actors must learn how to synchronise with the rhythm of traditional Khmer music, moving fast when the music plays fast, and slowing when the tempo slows.

The president of the Kok Thlok Association of Artists, Eang Hoeun, 44, chose Preah Tinavong and Neang Pov for the sbek por performance in the hope that the story can illustrate the reality of Cambodian society in the present.

“In our society nowadays, many problems arise between a man’s first wife and his mistress, so this story can be educational,” he said.

Eang Hoeu said that when he performs classical art forms throughout the country, especially shadow theatre, he finds that audiences of all ages are always very interested.

“They want to watch this kind of art form. But the problem is that we don’t show it to them very often, so people pick up the modern arts instead,” he said.

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