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Curtains back up as Khmer art master eager to inspire youth

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Mann Kosal holds a Sbek Thom shadow puppet. Sbek Thom was inscribed in UNESCO’s list of Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity in 2005. Hean Rangsey

Curtains back up as Khmer art master eager to inspire youth

After closing its oldest theatre – the Sovanna Phum Theatre – in May, the Sovanna Phum Art Association returned to the stage at the Secondary School of Fine Arts much to the delight of its audience, which included Minister of Culture and Fine Arts Phoeurng Sackona.

When the Sovanna Phum Theatre announced its permanent closing in May, Khmer traditional art master Mann Kosal was still hoping to somehow continue the legacy of his performances.

Even as he was packing his things before he travelled to his hometown in Takeo province, Kosal would not give up his lifelong journey in Khmer traditional performances.

He has participated in masked dance, or Lakhon Khol, and Sbek Thom shadow theatre, where leather cut-outs of human figures are used to create a puppet show. Sbek Thom was inscribed in UNESCO’s list of Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity in 2005.

In May, at the 26-year-old Sovanna Phum Theatre, tears welled in the art master’s eyes as his students packed their art pieces and equipment before vacating the premises.

Before leaving himself, Kosal recalled the theatre’s glory days and how his team had struggled to keep the traditional performances alive during the past several years.

In 1993, a small cafe which doubled as a theatre named Cafe De Art was opened by a French woman named Delphine Kassem. The cafe hosted small performances of Khmer traditional shows catering to foreigners and tourists in the evening.

Kosal was one of the performers at Cafe De Art.

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Mann Kosal tearfully reflects on the closing of Sovanna Phum Theatre. He regrets that his shows didn’t draw more local support. Hean Rangsey

“I graduated from the Secondary School of Fine Arts in opera singing and started working for the government’s Art Department. There I was captivated by the carved leather for Sbek Toch and Sbek Thom shadow theatre. They sparked my passion for art and I was driven to learn how to make the leather figures myself.”

Kosal and Kassem joined hands to transform Cafe De Art into the Sovanna Phum Art Association in 1994.

In the early days, it was located on Street 360 and offered several performances including traditional masked dance, shadow theatre, traditional dances, circus acts, speaking dramas, Bassac theatre, and Yike musical plays.

During the time, Sbek Thom, Sbek Touch (which uses smaller leather figures) and traditional dancing were extremely popular among foreigners.

From 1996 to the mid-2000s, Kosal and other artists poured their efforts and talents into the Sovanna Phum Art Association.

According to Kosal, tickets were always sold out. Some foreigners had to book tickets six months in advance to secure their seats for the spectacle.

In the mid-2000s, Kassem, who did a lot of marketing and fund-raising for the association had to leave Cambodia. Despite her absence, the theatre continued to run smoothly until three years ago.

Facing a shortage of funding, rising rental and shrinking audiences, Kosal, also the director of the Sovanna Phum Art Association, says his passion for the arts carried him through those three years of extreme hardships.

In 2016, he wanted to close the theatre because the little income from ticket sales could not pay the rent.

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The coronavirus crippled the theatre, as most customers were expatriates. Hean Rangsey

“Since the theatre opened until now, I have confronted many obstacles, but I never spoke up. My team and I struggled to solve the problems by ourselves.

“Sovanna Phum Art had dealt with insufficient funding before, but the last three years were the hardest. We no longer could afford to pay rent, utilities, payroll and food.

“My full-time staff and I got paid less than $40 per month for the last three years. Sometimes, we have only one steamed fish to share among us during our mealtime. Sometimes our neighbour would donate a sack of rice to us,” he says.

Donations from the public helped the theatre, but it could not make up for the theatre’s loss of income. The pandemic made ticket sales even worse.

“The majority of our audiences were expatriates [mostly Japanese and Europeans]. Sadly, few Cambodians watched our shows. I blamed myself for that since I failed to direct and produce a very good performance that could attract locals.

“Only 10 to 13 people were watching our performance. The small income from these ticket sales is used to support artists who are still studying in art school, and we do not keep a single riel,” Kosal says of the final performance.

As he attempts to hold back his tears, he tells The Post that he never wants to leave the theatre. Without a better option, he says he wants to do his best for the future of the art association.

He recalled the final gathering with his team when he asked them: “Can we take our heart away from this place?”

The most important task for Kosal is figuring out how to preserve this cultural legacy while the theatre is closed.

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An artist packs away his gear and prepares to leave the theatre behind. Hean Rangsey

“To me, art is everything in my life. I have given my whole life to Khmer culture and art and live to be part of our cultural preservation. I want Cambodians to be proud of our amazing culture, and I do not want them to doubt their identity, he says.

After meeting with Sackona on May 8, the intricately carved leather figures were put in the ministry’s care. The Secondary School of Fine Arts was offered as a venue to host future Sbek Thom performances.

“The theatre is finally shut. We have contributed our Sbek Touch, Sbek Thom, and other equipment to the Ministry of Culture and Fine Arts. The Sovanna Phum Art Theatre is officially disbanded.

“It is too late, [to save the Sovanna Phum Art theatre] even if we received funds right now because we have already left our artwork and performing equipment under the ministry’s care,” Kosal says.

Kosal points out that if there are people who want to invest in cultural performances, he is willing to create more leather puppets, face masks and other equipment to continue staging shows.

“I may start over again if we receive funding, and I will devote myself to produce a better show than ever. I am hoping to come back to perform for our audiences again,” he says.

With a trembling voice, he says: “It is hard for me to answer why I do this even though I have earned nothing. I remember and cherish everything in these 26 years of performance. I will never forget the big smiles on the audience’s faces, and how happy they were after every show.

“I’d like to thank everyone who supported our performances, and I have only one request for Cambodians, especially young people . . . please spare some of your time for our cultural heritage.”

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