Unique audio recordings of the Reamker have been inscribed on the UNESCO World Heritage list.
Ten hours of recitation are the only such historical record of Cambodia’s version of the Ramayana, which tells the tale of Rama’s efforts to rescue his wife Sita with the help of the monkey Hanuman.
The recordings of the epic, stories from which are found in almost every Khmer art form from dance to literature, were last week listed on the Memory of the World Register for documentary heritage.
“We are very excited – it was my wish to see this recording recognised internationally,” said Sopheap Chea, deputy director of the Bophana Audiovisual Resource Center.
The performer, Ta Krut, was an “exceptional storyteller” who died in his late 60s during the final weeks of the Khmer Rouge regime, Chea added.
Two different performances by Krut were recorded in the late 1960s by Jacques Brunet, a professor at the University of Fine Arts in Phnom Penh, before the Khmer Rouge took power and nearly destroyed the country’s oral tradition.
The Reamker recordings survived but deteriorated badly in France over the five decades before Brunet donated them to the Bophana centre, where they were restored and digitised in 2011.
The following year they were submitted to UNESCO for inscription on the basis of their value, as noted on the nomination form, as “the only known audio materials of an oral Khmer tradition”.
Helen Jarvis, government advisor and member of the International Advisory Committee for UNESCO’s Memory of the World program, said it was a “miracle” the recordings were able to be restored.
“These rare 1960s audio recordings of the Reamker . . . as told by grand master Ta Krut, have now been given their true recognition as of priceless value with significance to the Asia-Pacific region,” Jarvis wrote in an email.
Cambodia now features twice in each of UNESCO’s three cultural heritage lists.
Angkor Wat and Preah Vihear fall under Cultural Heritage while the Royal Ballet and Sbek Thom Shadow Puppets are classified as Intangible Heritage. Under Memory of the World are the Toul Sleng Archives and now the Reamker of Ta Krut.
Krut was the most well-known storyteller of his time. He specialised in the Reamker and gave dramatic performances, his voice rising and falling with the ebb and flow of the story, accompanied by the whine of leaf whistles.
Despite countrywide fame, he lived a humble life in his home province of Kampong Cham.
In an account obtained by the Bophana centre, the ethnomusicologist Brunet wrote the following after visiting Krut in 1967: “Nothing seemed to distinguish this man, famous throughout the kingdom, from any other rice-grower in the area.
“He lived in the same house of wood and thatch as everyone else, sitting cross-legged on a sort of cot.
“A life by no means poor, but one of great simplicity.
“His face radiated the same generous smile as that of men of piety, and seemed to share the quality of humans who live in intimacy with the supernatural.”