At 56, shadow-puppet master Mann Kosal is plotting a career change. Grappling with a lack of funding, a rent hike, and chronic back pain – from two decades spent hunched over, carving ornate details into leather – the longtime director of Phnom Penh’s Sovanna Phum Association can no longer afford to keep the organisation running, and is considering closing up shop.
His “final decision”, Kosal said this week, now rests on the shoulders of a pair of young artists determined to raise $30,000 over the next three months to cover the costs.
Sovanna Phum has performed weekly at its theatre since 1993, blending puppetry and traditional masked dance (lakhon khol) on the stage. Kosal is one of just a handful of puppet masters in Cambodia – an expert in the art of sbek thom (literally, large leather) carving. Under his guidance, the group has repeatedly won gold medals on the international circuit, he said.
“People looked up to us at the international events, but they never knew about the problems going on here [in Cambodia],” Kosal said in an interview at the studio in Boeung Trabek last week, surrounded by his crafts.
“I have realised that I have earned nothing,” he said. “I am getting older and older – and I don’t want to delay [switching jobs] anymore.”
Kosal worked alongside Sovanna Phum’s French founder, Delphine Kassem, for 15 years. Kassem was responsible for the organisation’s marketing and fundraising and grant-writing, but she left Cambodia in the mid-2000s, and her skills were never replaced at the organisation.
While Kosal’s shows are still popular, he said income from ticket sales would not cover the rent increase, artists’ wages or equipment costs. And the puppet master cannot even support himself: In April, when he spent a week in the hospital for back pain, he had to sell his car and some carving equipment to foot the bill.
Two young students who began volunteering with Sovanna Phum in 2012, sisters Rithy Lomorpich and Rithy Lomorkesor, are determined to keep the organisation running. When they heard Kosal might close up, they rushed to him with a plan. They aim to crowdfund the money needed to fill the gap with a three-month campaign that asks for 5,000 riel from each donor.
“Sovanna Phum is like a museum, there are many things inside,” Lomorpich said this week. “We hope that people will donate just a small amount of money to save Khmer art.”
The sisters think many youth are disinterested in the traditional arts because they’re not exposed to them. But on the first day of their campaign last week, Lomorkesor said, most of the audience at Sovanna Phum’s performances were young people who had heard about it on social media.
“If there are people to support them, the artists will happily perform,” she added. “People just need to know about it.”
Kosal said that if the plan fails, he intends to resettle in Pailin or Poipet, and earn his keep as a tuk-tuk driver. It’s an odd move for a man who has worked for 20 years in a field heralded as a Cambodian cultural heritage.
In 2005, sbek thom joined the Cambodian royal ballet on UNESCO’s Intangible Cultural Heritage list, after a submission by the Ministry of Culture and Fine Arts. The ministry hopes to put forth other art forms, including lakhon khol and bokator, before next year, according to Buth Channa, the director of the ministry’s fine arts department.
But the “preservation” of sbek thom is relatively small-scale. Sovanna Phum is one of only a handful that perform it in Cambodia, including two troupes in Siem Reap, Phnom Penh-based Kok Thlok, and one group run directly by the Ministry of Culture in the capital. (Kosal was trained by one of the ministry’s puppet masters.)
Soeur Vuthy, 58, is a puppet master with the ministry’s troupe. He said that he receives support from UNESCO through the ministry to train artists in the provinces in the traditional arts, but not for his own work with shadow puppets. Vuthy added that at its sbek thom performances – which are less popular than lakhon khol – the audience is often foreign.
Who owns lakhon khol ?
Anger erupted online early this week when Thailand’s Culture Ministry proposed that its traditional khon masked dance – based on the Thai version of the Ramayana – be added to UNESCO’s cultural heritage list.
“This dance [belongs] to Cambodia, not Thailand,” read one post, shared over 10,000 times on Facebook.
Rithy Lomorpich, the Sovanna Phum volunteer, and her sister are concerned about international recognition. “People on the international stage can’t distinguish [between the forms], and when they see the masked dance, they will always think it is a Thai dance,” she said this week.
The small-scale incident recalled elements of an actual flame war: In 2003, Cambodian protesters set fire to the Embassy of Thailand in Phnom Penh after a Khmer-language newspaper alleged that a Thai actress claimed Cambodia had “stolen” Angkor Wat.
But adaptations of the Ramayana are scattered across the continent. Scholar AK Ramanujan wrote in an essay that traced its spread throughout Asia – from Malaysia to Japan to Mongolia – that there were more than 300 versions of the Indian epic. “No text is original, yet no telling is a mere retelling – and the story has no closure,” he concluded.
Cambodia, Thailand, Laos and Myanmar each have their own take, and their own form of associated masked dance: the Ramakien and khon in Thailand, and the Reamker and khol in Cambodia.
Cambodian Ministry of Culture spokesman Thai Norak Satya told the Post on Monday that to “reject” Thailand’s selection could cause undue damage to bilateral relations between the countries. And Thailand’s culture minister, for his part, said he had no problem with Cambodia’s own move to try to add lakhon khol to the list, according to Thai National News.
The Thai minister also pointed out one piece of shared heritage – between Cambodia and Indonesia – that remains on UNESCO’s list: shadow puppetry.
“Local people aren’t interested in the shadow puppets,” he said. “I want to teach my children how to carve puppets, but they don’t want to learn.”
Channa said that the ministry could not currently afford to fund shadow puppetry beyond its own troupe. He also chalked the local funding issue up to a lack of interest among the young generation.
“Old people like the performance,” he said. “Unfortunately, most young people don’t.”
Sovanna Phum’s fate comes as no surprise to many working in the Kingdom’s other traditional arts organisations, which feel the pinch when it comes to wrestling with limited local support and the challenges of securing funding from abroad.
Sarin Chhuon, head of programs at Cambodian Living Arts, believes the problem is structural. “There isn’t enough work for artists, and there is a lack of local and government support,” Chhuon said, adding that traditions are not passed down to younger generations.
CLA, which operates a foundation in the US and receives most of its funding abroad, provides support to many traditional artists. It currently sponsors the 26-member Wat Bo puppet troupe, in Siem Reap.
For smaller organisations, the challenge is compounded. The director of Kok Thlok, Phoeung Kompheak, is concerned about the future. “People value entertainment: KTV or other fun things. We are afraid that art and culture will decline,” Kompheak said this week. Kok Thlok currently has 10 puppet makers – all volunteers.
Yon Sokhorn, a program manager with CLA, explained that groups come to the organisation without much knowhow. “Artists have the arts skills, but they don’t have the skills to write a proposal or get funding,” she said.
Ironically, Sokhorn added that for the moment, the solution may lie with young people – those the ministry argues are disinterested. While CLA seeks to train artists in grant writing, it also connects them with youth groups who have more experience with local fundraising, including initiatives like Tosfund, which crowdfunds at the grassroots level. Lomorpich and Lomorkesor are using Tosfund for their campaign.
But according to artist and consultant Khiang Hei, the situation for many small groups may be dire. “Unless the government begins to think like the court before the 1970s – when the [state] used to take the initiative – there is little hope for these organisations to survive,” he said.
Ultimately – and especially with an art form that is “protected” at the international level – some conclude it’s up to the state to preserve it.
“It’s the government’s responsibility to take action here,” said Chhuon, of CLA.
“If the art form dies out, UNESCO can just erase it from the list,” he said.