In Siem Reap, theatrical traditions such as shadow
play and classical dance are being revived.
An artistic renaissance is
taking place throughout Cambodia after traditions were almost lost during two
decades of war
Memories of old stories and graceful movements are being
taught in pagodas and homes to a new generation.
At Wat Conmoch, three
kilometers outside Siem Reap, a group of six farmers and fruit-sellers re-enact
old Khmer stories, of Hindu origin, with shadow puppets called Mang Keak Long.
The ancient form of theater goes back a thousand years. The silhouettes,
cut out of cow-hide, with movable arms, are mounted and manipulated on sticks
behind a back lit white screen.
The figures are replicas of the
elaborate shadow puppets destroyed during the Pol Pot regime.
ones are made in a nearby village by Yong Yan, the son of a puppet maker, and
stored in flat wooden boxes, like flower presses, tied with string and kept at
the pagoda. The monks show them with as much care and pride as do the
One of the group, Srei Chen, is 60 years old and trained when he
was 18. During the early Sihanouk regime he performed at the Royal Palace.
"Normally, there would be 160 puppets," he explained. "But we don't have
much money so we manage with less than 50." Nevertheless, their repertoire drawn
from memory includes six stories, one called Lin Thoung is the most
The tradition is oral and the story is passed down from one
generation to the next.
Accompanied by five musicians, the tale is about
heroes and villains, magic spells, battles and unrequited love, centered around
the eponymous hero.
Horses, birds and fish appear, their silhouettes
prancing across the screen, and ornate pagodas decorate the background.
Actors concealed beneath the screen narrate the parts, their
high-pitched dialogue reminiscent of Punch and Judy. But the whole is more
intricate and exotic.
Srei Nam, 42, one of two women in the group,
learned her skills when she was 13 from Srei Chen's teacher.
She keeps a
faded black and white photo of him in the pagoda. "We didn't want the old
stories to disappear," she said.
After the Pol Pot regime the survivors
gathered to relearn their art. "We teach each other," said Srei Nam.
They have also trained a young woman and man, Teang Saran and Srei Tuy,
both in their twenties.
Asian art consists of perfecting gestures which
have been handed down through a long line of teachers, rather than discovering
Originality does not count, unlike occidental (western) art
where the impulse is to escape tradition, form new ideas and make a unique
The group give about 20 performances a year, for
private gatherings or to entertain royal visitors when invited by the town's
governor Nau Sam.
Their reputation is growing and for King Sihanouk's
birthday the Ministry of Culture invited them to play in front of the Royal
The same desire to perpetuate tradition reigns in the back of a
dressmaker's wooden house in town where two women teach classical dance.
Ros Kohn, in her late fifties, was a dancer with King Sisowat's Auberge
Royale des Temples d'Angkor Wat.
With Chim Kim Ploeun, who makes bridal
wear and creates the children's dance costumes, she has started a small school
to teach 20 children the 450 gestures of classical Khmer ballet.
Ros, who trained at the School of Fine Arts, has three treasured photos of
herself from 1958 and a page from Nokor Khmer, a 1970 magazine, showing her
dancing at Angkor Wat.
She wears a silver and gold crown given to her by
King Sihanouk's mother when she danced in the Chanchhaya Pavilion at the Royal
"Everything was lost during the Pol Pot regime," she sighed.
"Only eight dancers of our troupe of 40 survived." Madame Chim also lost her
They found musicians to accompany them and an old singer from
the Auberge Royale.
"During the Vietnamese regime we weren't able to do
anything," recalled Mme Chim. "But when Sihanouk returned to Cambodia we felt
optimistic and started teaching our nieces and grandchildren how to
The boys and girls, aged between 8-14, dance six classics,
ranging from Mony Mekhala to the Dance of Felicitation. The performances seem
"They make lots of mistakes," laughed Mme Chim, who rehearses
with them twice a week.
The women's work is voluntary but the reward,
they say, is the sheer joy of seeing their pupils dance.
The children are
equally enthusiastic and have learned the dances in 8 months.
doing the role of Hanuman, the white monkey king from the Ramayana," said Chan
Chek, a teenage boy whose parents died under the Khmer Rouge.
Vouthy, a tiny 8-year-old girl, displays all the elegance and poise of Mme Ros,
who is her aunt.
"But sometimes," she confessed shyly. "I forget the
Memory is vital in the regeneration of these old traditions.
Pich Tum Kravel, the director of the National Theater in Phnom Penh,
says there are about 200 theater companies throughout Cambodia.
people can learn from them and emulate them but also evolve new ideas, thus
sustaining and reinvigorating artistic traditions.