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Making monkeys of men in lakhaoun khaol

Making monkeys of men in lakhaoun khaol


DEMONIC grinning monkey masks loom down at the visitor, some painted violent

red, others icy blue. Intricate designs on the faces are offset by towering gold

headpieces, creating a regal yet eerie effect.

Male dancers portray typical warrior monkey poses wearing some of the masks created for the exhibition.

These are hand-made masks

of the Lakhaoun Khaol, a form of Khmer theater, and are the main draw of a new

exhibition opening this week in Phnom Penh, at the newly renovated Reyum Gallery

(formerly known as "Situations").

Lakhaoun Khaol, or as it has been

translated, "monkey theater", is the name given to a famous section of the

Reamker (the Cambodian version of the Hindu epic the Ramayana), where armies of

monkeys and demons enact a vicious battle. Dancers mimicking monkey behaviour

spring across the stage in leaps and bounds, wearing intricate jeweled costumes

and the brightly-painted masks.

But the story behind Lakhaoun Khaol is

almost as fascinating as the dance itself, and, say the curators, is a key

element to the exhibition.

"There were two types of Lakhaoun Khaol," says

Ly Daravuth, Co-curator of the exhibition. "There was firstly what I would call

the high version, the court version which was performed at the palace. And then

there is the village version, the local performances, which have significant

variations."

While the court version is the one that most tourists and

those living in Phnom Penh will have seen, Daravuth and Co-curator Ingrid Muan

stress that the village variation is just as important, if not more so, because

of its ritualistic meaning.

The origins of the dance are unclear, but it

is certain that in the nineteenth century, the Royal Palace sent talent scouts

out into the provinces to find dancers who could perform Lakhaoun Khaol, in

order to create a royal troupe. Traditionally performed by men only (as it still

is in the provinces), the dance eventually became most popular when performed by

the Palace's female-only troupe.

In the village of Vat Svay Andaet,

where the dance is performed annually at New Year, superstitious meaning is

attached to the performance, explains Daravuth.

A partly completed marsk.

"The important thing for

them is that they believe that they must provide a good performance, and must

perform it at the right time, or great calamities will befall the

village."

According to villagers, in 1966 a section of the play where

characters pray for rain was suddenly answered far too literally. Despite

scorching heat and dry weather for many months, in the middle of the performance

the heavens suddenly opened, drenching the participants and forcing the

cancellation for the rest of the seven-day extravaganza.

"And in 1964,"

adds Muan, "the first four days of the Lakhaoun Khaol were performed in the

village, but they then decided to take the rest of the performance to another

village. When they returned home, there was an outbreak of cholera, which killed

800 people."

Since then the villagers have been careful to prepare the

play in exactly the right way, with special ceremonies created to appease the

spirits before the play starts.

"Villagers go into a trance, and call on

the spirits of the demons and monkeys," explains Muan. "The masks themselves are

believed to come to life, with the spirits inside them ... Gestures are made

over their eyes, as if opening them, and finally a mirror is placed in front of

the mask so that the spirit can see what it looks like, and who it

is."

The exhibition features old photographs and descriptions of

village-based as well as court-based performances, but the real draw is a set of

Lakhaoun Khaol masks, 30 in all, commissioned for the show and created by master

lacquer-maker An Sok. Regular gallery-goers may remember samples of An Sok's

work being shown earlier this year in a traditional art exhibition at the

gallery.

"This is a continuation of the earlier theme," says Daravuth,

explaining that the gallery now comprises the whole building rather than just a

small section, as before. "We have expanded, so now we are looking much more at

the mysteries of the whole performance, rather than just the masks."

The

exhibition is running from now until the end of the year, Reyum Gallery, Street

178, No 47.

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