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At the age of 19, most Cambodians embrace modernisation, enjoy K-Pop and tend to ignore Khmer traditions, but Seng Nalin is different. The fourth-year student at the School of Fine Arts has been obsessed with the idea of becoming a yike, or Khmer opera performer since she was seven. She is now recognised as one of the Kingdom’s most talented yike performers and has appeared on TV and on stages across the country.
Nalin is not the first person in her family to gain notoriety through the age-old art form. Her great-grandfather was an opera star in 1960s, and his example was followed by her grandmother, her mother and now Seng Nalin herself. In fact, it was while watching her mother and grandmother perform that she fell in love with the art form.
While she has already begun to learn yike at home, her formal education started in 2001 when Cambodian Living Arts hired her grandmother, also a former teacher at the Royal University of Fine Arts, to spread her love of opera to the country’s younger generation.
Her grandmother has a harsh style of teaching and Seng Nalin was unpracticed in dancing, singing, memorising scripts and changing her facial expression to fit the scene. When she stumbled, her grandmother often chastised or hit her. But this did not make her love of yike fade away. Instead, she tried even harder and always told herself that “my grandmother can do it, and my mother can do it, so surely I can do it”.
With daily practice sessions and hours performing in front of her mirror at home, Nalin became a skilled performer after only a year, while other students needed at least three years. Her first public performance was in Takeo province when she was just 12 years old. Since then, her popularity as spread nationwide; she has been invited to perform in 24 provinces and cities in the Kingdom.
Earlier this month, Nalin took the stage at Chaktomuk Hall and performed a story called Bird’s Love, which received a raucous ovation from both national and international audiences.
Nalin’s grandmother Khy Mum, who is now 76, said yike is her family’s legacy and they have struggled to keep it alive after 1979 when most performers had been killed by the Pol Pot regime.
“I am elated that my granddaughter has followed in my footstep as a yike dancer,” she said with a pride-filled smile. “She is ensuring that it won’t disappear from Cambodian society.”
Seng Nalin is wholeheartedly dedicated to doing what she can to pass it to future Cambodians. “If I get enough money, I will establish an association to pass down yike to the next generation,” she said.