‘Sometimes I really want to cry when I see that there is nobody I can share my skills with,” says Chan Phal, master of Basak drama at the Department of Culture and Fine Arts in Phnom Penh.
His sadness is caused by the dwindling number of young people who want to study the Cambodian traditional drama, Basak, which in recent years has been attracting smaller and smaller audiences.
The differences in modern taste are a big problem for Lakorn Basak – from having hundreds of people sitting in the field watching performance to having thousands of people waiting for new foreign songs or movies.
“As the old person in this generation, I still love watching Lakorn Basak, it is our transitional drama and I had always watched it since I was young,” grandma Yim Yu said.
“However, nowadays it is very difficult to find the Lakorn to watch because not only on TV, but also in some ceremonies, they rarely have Lakorn to perform.” She added Neak Chanmonyneath, a pharmacy student at International University, says that she doesn’t like watching Lakorn Basak because the drama is mostly about ancient history. She says, “I like watching modern movies because it shows the development of the present.”
The lack of public interest limits the chances for Basak actors and actresses to earn enough money to live on. This has caused many to adapt and seek out new skills while others keep on despite the hardship.
“Playing in Lakorn Basak is not easy at all because we have to play from night time until early morning” says the former performer San Mao, adding: “We had 30 to 40 members, so we didn’t get a lot of money after sharing.” Because of the financial difficulties, he changed his career – from Basak performer to comedian – in 1989 after spending almost 10 years performing the drama.
Chan Phal faces similar problems now after spending more than 30 years as a Basak actor. He says, “besides Lakorn Basak, I don’t work anywhere else. I rarely receive invitations to play.”
“Not many students come to study Lakorn. This drama really needs more opportunities in the job market and more resources.” He continues: “For Basak teachers, they follow their resolve to ensure sustainability of Lakorn sector.”
Sek Savy has been teaching Lakorn Basak since 1993 at Secondary School of Fine Arts. Savy acknowledges that the lack of human resource is a big challenge in Basak class nowadays. “In my time, only 10 students were selected among 100 students, but now I have to choose all of them if possible,” she says.
Basak seems like a drama for old people, and that’s may be the reason why youths don’t like it. Chanmonyneath says.
“I always see old people in most of the Basak scenes. It would be great if there were young performers.”
Sim Ratha, 16, is a fifth year student at the Secondary School of Fine Arts majoring in Lakorn Basak. Ratha is young but his goal is to be Basak drama composer and director. Attaining this dream will require a bachelor’s degree at Royal University of Fine Arts after he graduates from his current degree.
Savy is the only female teacher at Secondary School of Fine Arts, while all other four teachers are male.
Basak requires a teacher to sing or perform 10 to 20 times in each lesson. Moreover, preparation for each performance takes a long time.
“To prepare for a scene, I need a few months,” Savy says.
Even though money from the drama cannot support most Basak performers, they don’t forget what they have learnt about Basak, and always try to seek chance to introduce the drama to people.
San Mao includes Basak style or song most of the time he plays in comedy show. He says, “I still love Lakhorn Basak. I always try to show my Basak skills in my comedy show.”
“The ministry has been trying very hard to find strategies to ensure sustainability of Khmer Lakorn Basak and asking for support from other organisations,” says Proeung Chhieng, advisor of the Ministry of Culture and Fine Arts.
“This drama cannot move forward unless everyone helps to support it directly and indirectly.”