Drums hum softly for a minute. Then vocalists start to sing. Six girls line up to dance in the classical style, similar to Apsara, before an old woman sitting in front of them.
This is the first scene of Maktherng, a rare performance of yike, the form of classical Cambodian opera that was wildly popular before the Khmer Rouge years but died out after the 1970s.
Now a cast of 40 Cambodian young people are bringing the centuries old art form back to the country. The non-governmental oganisation Cambodia Living Arts (CLA) is teaching a performance, the story of an ordinary man’s fight for justice, to a group between the ages of 13 and 25 that will be performed next month.
The traditional art form, unique to Cambodia, was very popular thirty years ago but almost disappeared as the country modernised, according to Uy Ladavan, the yike trainer at CLA.
Events such as the inauguration of new temples or village ceremonies have traditionally involved lakhon yike, a mixture of dancing and singing, but now most Cambodian teenagers choose to listen to music from the West.
“Yike was so famous before the 1970s. The yike performers were hired to perform every week,” Ladavan said.
After people got television sets, they stopped coming to yike performances, she added.
Some yike performers allowed themselves to be filmed for television and audiences stayed at home – there was no need to come to the theatre.
Uy Ladavan wants to change that and restore yike to the stage. Her trainees will perform a story called Maktherng in October.
“The message of the story is to encourage an ordinary person to stand for justice when they have such abuse,” she said.
Maktherng is the story of a 50-year-old man who marries Pakyan, a young woman of about 18. His wife is kidnapped by Pya Noy, the son of the provincial governor and he attempts to reclaim her against the will of officials.
When Maktherng decides to risk his life to try to get his wife back, she is too afraid to admit her identity to the governor.
Maktherng and Pya Noy are put through a series of tests before officials discover the truth through a boy hidden inside a drum who tells the whole story.
The provincial governor returns Pakyan to Maktherng, but Pya Noy who loses in the trial gets so angry, and he jumps to stab her with a knife to death.
The young cast of Maktherng cast said they were proud to revive the dying art form, though they found the roles challenging to perform.
Theng Kimsor, 22, a student at the School of Fine Arts, who stars as Maktherng, said he thought it was important to promote the art form, as it is nearly extinct in Cambodia, especially among young people.
“Young people don’t know much about yike. Yike stands for our Cambodian identity. I’ll promote it to people who have almost forgotten the art form,” he said.
Cambodia Living Arts has taught free yike classes to about 20 students since 2004.
Its success comes thanks to the passion of the few remaining yike masters who work at the centre. Some of CLA’s teachers have included Khmer Rouge survivors who were asked to work at the centre after years teaching yike to poor children in the mud in slums.
Maktherng will be performed at the National Museum of Phnom Penh from Monday to Saturday at 7pm, beginning on October 25.
To contact the reporter on this story: Roth Meas at [email protected]