Artistic talent seems to run in the royal family. King Ang Duong (1796-1859) composed
intricate poems. King Sihanouk's passions for film-making and music marked his reign.
And now, Norodom Sihamoni, an accomplished ballet dancer, takes the throne.
A young Prince Sihamoni dances with a student from the Royal University of Fine Arts, Phnom Penh, at the ancient temples of Angkor Wat.
While Bill Clinton might have belted out a few notes on the sax during campaign season,
by and large western leaders stick to politics. Cambodia is different.
Cultured royalty "is a Khmer tradition," said Him Sophy, a composer and
professor at the Royal University of Fine Arts. "It's in the Khmer blood because
the Khmer blood is artistic."
But some wonder what role this heritage can play in today's international political
environment. Too often, westerners confuse the sensitivity required for artistic
expression with vulnerability.
Sponsoring an opera now and then is fine. But how much art is too much?
In countries like America, citizens want war veterans, not dancers, to lead the country.
Even though Cambodia's kings are increasingly less political, this attitude has made
small inroads here.
"Many Cambodians are proud that their king is artistic, but others aren't,"
Sophy said. "They think if he is too much like this, he's not enough like a
This wasn't always a concern. While few records remain of ancient Cambodia, researchers
believe the arts played a central role in courtly life. Over 1,730 celestial Apsara
dancer carvings decorate the country's temples, said Sam Ang Sam, an ethno-musicologist
and professor at Pannasastra University.
Khmers believed that art - particularly dance - had spiritual associations.
"Court dancers were considered sacred and not allowed to marry," Sam said.
"They were a pure form that could communicate with God, and honor the God-king."
Although there are no accounts detailing kingly involvement, Sophy said he believes
monarchs often directly participated in the arts, even dance. In ancient times, he
said, rulers were most likely influenced by the image of the Hindu god Shiva, a heavenly
But in the late 20th century, royal artistic expression took on negative attributes.
Historians have criticized King Sihanouk's film-making as having distracted him from
the brewing revolt in the late 1960s. The Khmer Rouge then rejected all art forms
related to class and religion.
"They tried to break the Khmer culture," Sophy said. "People without
culture are like machines - they have no humanity."
That's why many in today's Cambodian arts scene hope Sihamoni will lead a revival.
"From all descriptions, Sihamoni is not very political," said Ray Leos,
a dean and professor in Pannasastra University's Faculty of Communication and Media
Arts. "He could play a role in promoting arts and culture."
Leos added that contemporary Cambodian art is largely neglected.
"It's not all about Angkor," he said.
Despite concerns he's heard about mixing leadership and art, Sophy said he agreed
Sihamoni's cultural involvement could be good for the country - just so long as he's
not too personally involved.
"Music, dance and art can help Cambodian thinking, minds and feelings to become
peaceful," Sophy said. "Art can help - if our king's an artist, that's
a good symbol."