Returning to Cambodia: Khmer Artists Seek Growth


It was at the Pochentong International Airport in early 1974 when I last saw relatives, friends, and dance students as they sent me on my way to the Philippines with my husband, Sam-Ang Sam, who was then sent by the University of Fine Arts in Phnom Penh to the Conservatory of Music, University of the Philippines. Information leading me to my relatives and friends was unknown to me until 1981, when my three brothers fled the country; two went to France and one joined me in the United States. Other information on Khmer artists in Cambodia then surfaced when my former teachers, friends, and schoolmates came to the United States.

For the 16 years since I left my homeland, one of my dreams has been to go back and visit it. Finally my dream was realized; I made a return visit with the delegation from the Social Science Research Council in May 1989. It was an emotional and exciting trip for me to see relatives, teachers, friends, and familiar places, to see the artistic activities in which I used to engage, as well as the struggle for survival of my beloved teachers and artist friends. Before the trip I asked myself repeatedly, What are my friends going to think of me? What attitudes and feelings will they have toward me? Are we still the same friends? Have they changed? The list of questions went on an on.

After one anxious week of waiting and stopovers in Thailand and Laos, our delegation flew in an old twin-engine Soviet plane to Phnom Penh. At Pochentong International Airport we were greeted by Ly Sorsane from the North America desk of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, who gave us a big smile. At customs, things moved along more smoothly than I had anticipated, though I had mixed feelings of joy and fear. As we loaded our luggage into the mini-van and began to drive toward Phnom Penh, I saw smiles on everyone's faces. Looking around I noticed damaged buildings and houses, wild trees and flowers, and the routine daily activities of people. We arrived at the Cambodiana Motel, located in front of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (formerly the Buddhist Institute).

The University of Fine Arts

Arriving at the University of Fine Arts, I was thrilled and impressed by the liveliness of the university environment and activities: the sounds of violins, trumpets, and pianos could be heard. As I proceeded further into the university compound, a number of students, including a few of my former teachers and friends, exchanged greetings and walked with me around the campus. On my left stood an unfinished building - a new auditorium, my friends informed me - surrounded with green grass mixed with weeds and wildflowers and sheltered by a couple of tall trees, emanating a peaceful atmosphere and a feeling of "welcome home." On my right stood another wooden building, a boys' dormitory.

Yet another wooden building, raised above the ground, was the dance rehearsal hall. It was quiet and gloomy. Softly I climbed the stairs, intending to surprise my dance master. I stopped for a moment to look at three panels of dance postures. Then I heard a gently singing voice from inside the hall. Peeking in, I saw one dancer receiving instruction while others sat in a row in Khmer fashion (angkuy bath choeung), along the left side of the hall, passively observing the lesson. To the right sat the musicians. All this reminded me of the traditional atmosphere in which Khmer dance discipline is learned. Finally, the moment I had longed for had arrived. I approached my teacher, Chea Samy. I was speechless in the moment of reunion, thrill, happiness, and excitement. With her gracious permission, I had her teach me a new dance piece called Chhouy Chhay Tep Apsar ("chhouy chhay the divinity").

The Khmer Rouge closed the University of Fine Arts in 1975; it reopened in January 1981 under the direction of Chheng Phon (currently minister of information and culture). With five faculties - archaeology, architecture, choreographic arts (folk and court dance and theater), music (traditional Khmer music and classical Western music), and plastic arts - the university now has approximately 860 students, most enrolled in the Faculty of Plastic Arts. The smallest faculties are those of choreographic arts and music. The court dance program has twenty-seven students of female characters, nineteen of male characters, and four giants. The folk dance program has thirty-two men and seven women. The masked dance program has eleven students studying male characters, and five giants (evil spirits).

Every year, the Faculty of Choreographic Arts recruits about 40 or 50 new students, basing its recruitment on education and talent. The dance school holds two classes: a morning session devoted to dance training, and an afternoon session involving general studies, such as mathematics, history, and Khmer literature.

The university possesses a small library and a research center where teachers meet, discuss, and compile documents. Oral tradition is still the way in which teachers pass on their knowledge to students on a daily basis. Among the seven court dance teachers are Chea Samy and Minh Kossany (one of the most famous stars of the Khmer Royal Ballet in prewar years). There are also four folk dance teachers. Chheng Phon takes time away from his ministerial duties and comes to the university on a monthly basis to conduct lectures, colloquia, and classes for students at all levels, including teachers. His eloquent talks usually last half the day and cover a wide range of topics: nationalism, socialism, artistic idealism, encouragement and challenge for students, as well as general perspectives on art. He often draws examples from the Soviet Union, Czechoslovakia, Bulgaria, Hungary, East Germany, Poland, France, and India. Above all he praises the great Khmer tradition, using Angkor Wat as an example of "Khmerness."

The Faculty of Choreographic Arts offers the first cycle of education (four years), leading to the degree of Diplome des Arts in court and folk dances. During their senior year, prospective graduates in court dance must choreograph a new dance as partial fulfillment for degree requirements. Those who expect to graduate in folk dance must learn the folk dance repertoire of 21 dances. The second cycle (three years), leading to the Baccalaureat des Arts, requires the reviewing of the first cycle dance repertoire and creating a new work. At this last stage, students work very closely with their teachers (one teacher to every five students). Aside from technique, the baccalaureat degree also requires students to write a thesis on a chosen topic related to students' areas of concentration.

Since 1979 teachers at the university have produced some 50 masterpieces of dance and dance drama in both the folk and court traditions, and the students have also created some 300. Ten theatrical productions have been staged, including three bassac (Chinese opera) plays and seven other spoken plays. Mrs. Kann Sovanny, my former classmate and now a teacher at the university, informed me that before 1975 there were only 30 yike (Khmer folk theater) songs. Since 1979 the university has invited the two of the renowned surviving yike masters - Ta Khy and Ta Duong - from Kandal Province for residency. As a result, the research center has compiled 85 yike songs and 150 bassac songs.

Pen Yeth, former teacher at the university and currently second vice-minister of information and culture and rector of the University of Fine Arts, told me that the ministry and university have received foreign aid from several countries. Save the Children (Australia) has sponsored, in part, the building of a musical instruments workshop under the supervision of William Lobban. The Soviet Union has sent teachers and trainers in the circus and Western symphony orchestra. Vietnam has also sent instructors to teach theory and Western instrumental practice. Cuba has been responsible for the choral production. East Germany has developed the symphony orchestra and cinema. Bulgaria and Czechoslovakia have granted scholarships for Khmer students to go to their countries to study puppetry, and India has provided grants for two Khmer students to study Indian dance.

I returned to visit the University of Fine Arts every day for the rest of my stay in Phnom Penh. I was happy to see that the traditional practices of music and dance were still carried on. One Thursday, I asked Chea Samy's permission to perform a sampeah krou (a salute to the teachers or spirits) ceremony. Along with offerings of bay sey, masks, headdresses, water, perfumes, candles, incense sticks, flowers, and fruits, the music sathukar and a series of dances were performed by young dancers, and the ceremony was under way. At the end, Chea Samy invited me to drink the holy water, sprinkling it on my head with her prayers and blessing. Other dance teachers followed her and, one by one, they tied the cotton threads (symbolizing long life) around my wrists; before ending the ceremony, Chea Samy inserted a stem of green grass behind my right ear (to ward off evil spirits).

Artists' Lives

I also took time on my visit to meet with friends and relatives at my motel room, sharing life experiences in an intimate atmosphere. My former classmate, Roeung Savath, told me of her return from hard labor in the rice fields to Phnom Penh, where she had become a vegetable vendor. Chheng Phon met her at the market and talked her into coming back to the dance troupe along with other artists. Although a number of artists never resumed their profession, Chheng Phon was still able to pick up more and more dancers. Roeung Savath indicated that she had lost her confidence in becoming an ideal artist. Now a mother of four and a dance teacher, she receives 350 riels (less than US $1) a month along with a few kilograms of rice and sugar from the state; with this she can buy 10 bowls of noodles. (In May 1989 in Phnom Penh, a bowl of noodles cost 35 riels and a cup of coffee 10 riels.) Although her family receives free housing and utilities, this sum of money is not sufficient for them to live on. To supplement this, she and her husband grow vegetables for sale. This kind of life is led by every Khmer artist in Cambodia today; each must have at least two jobs to make ends meet. A few artists have left the university, seeking other jobs for better earnings.

My meeting with teachers and friends at the university, too, was intimate and sincere. As a result, my husband, Sam-Ang, was asked to give a talk to the teachers and students. On the morning of his lecture, the auditorium was filled with approximately 100 students and 10 teachers. Sam-Ang's talk centered on the importance of Khmer arts, their maintenance and preservation, Khmer artistic activities in the United States, and some thoughts on cultural resources and endeavors in Cambodia and the educational system in the West. I was then asked by Kuch Hoeung to talk on a dance topic. At the end, I opened the floor to welcome students' questions. I found that, despite the negative imagery generated by the Khmer Rouge and Pol Pot, our students were mature and intelligent. I saw in their eyes signs of hunger for new knowledge.

Chea Samy

The relationship between Chea Samy and myself grew more and more intimate following the ritual offering. With her permission, I visited her at home for three afternoons. The old Building Gris ("Gray Building"), occupied by mostly French and foreign officials prior to 1975, has become the artists' residence known as Centre des Artistes, where Chea Samy and her family life. It is now more like an apartment, very compact and crowded, and she shares it with her husband, two grandchildren, and an adopted daughter. Her bedroom has been converted into a storeroom for dance costumes, jewelry, and accessories. Because there have been thefts in the past, people entrust her and leave these materials at her house.

Sitting on the floor in Khmer fashion, we shared our personal experiences on a wide range of topics, mostly focusing on Khmer dance: demonstration, explanation, question, and answer. The most interesting part of the discussion, however, was our exchange of views over certain movements in the Robam Mekhala ("mekhala dance"). We discussed the theoretical conception as well as the practice. Remarkably, Chea Samy repeatedly commented: "Yes, your new findings need to be scrutinized, and we are here to take part in the process. We should cooperate with one another closely to restore the true essence and the long forgotten value of Khmer dance."

Evidently we have a strong commitment and determination to restore Khmer tradition, despite the daily struggle for survival and recovery by Khmer artists in Cambodia. Chea Samy's adopted daughter reminisced about her first trip abroad in 1980 and her mixed feelings of joy, laughter, and, above all, the emotional impact of extreme poverty contrasted to the overwhelming wealth in foreign countries. Chea Samy expressed her opinions over the quality of the present artistic productions: "Enormous efforts have been made to upgrade the quality, value, and quantity, yet the gap between the new trend and that of the old remains clearly distinctive."

One of these efforts was taking place at her apartment each day after school. All dance majors, particularly those who had the potential of becoming good dancers, were encouraged to spend one or two more hours improving their skill under her supervision. In addition, her teaching technique was to integrate practice and theory as much as possible (in contrast to the traditional method and system), enabling students to understand and appreciate the artistic value. A new production featuring a dance drama entitled Kakei was being rechoreographed based on old poetic texts that once belonged to dance master Khun Meak. Dance master Soth Sam-On was also taking part in the technical aspect. Chea Samy received help from her assistant (a dance student), Prom Sisophantha, who took a great deal of interest in documenting and compiling footage of dance techniques.

Chheng Phon declares that the revival of Khmer art is made possible by the continuous support and dedication of the surviving old and young artists alike, whose physical, mental, and spiritual states the inhumane regime of Pol Pot tried to destroy. As noted by teachers, Khmer artists achieve their goals only through practice; little has been done in terms of documentation. Khmer scholars, such as Pich Tum Kravil, are committed to long-term research and study in various artistic fields. As an author, playwright, producer, and director, Pich Tum Kravil has published several books on Khmer poetry, shadow plays, and traditional plays. Now the director of the National Dance Troupe (Department of Arts), he has stressed the need to salvage the Khmer traditional mask dance form, lakhon khol. Although the University of Fine Arts has a 60-year-old master of a village troupe on staff, the public has little knowledge of this art form, and materials on the lakhon khol are scarce.

Another important issue that requires immediate attention is the Dictionnaire Vivante ("Living Dictionary"), which refers to Chea Samy, Soth Sam-On, and Em Theay. These three masters, among others, are the most precious art treasure Cambodia has today. Chea Samy once said, "Change and alteration of Khmer art should be minimal." But the separation between parents and their children, old and new generations, insiders and outsiders, creates a gap. We must build a bridge between the two worlds to facilitate the flow of communication. Furthermore, it is important to unearth those Khmer dance movements which only exist in the memories of old dance masters.

The Ministry of Information and Cultures has also launched huge projects, each year bringing 45 groups of professionals and amateurs from around the country to meet and present their new works at the annual festival and competition in Phnom Penh.

The restoration of Khmer culture is parallel to the process of healing, or restoring the Khmer spirit, and reaffirming Khmer identity. I have learned from this trip that my teachers and friends possess the inner strength in which their spirits are freed from the material world. Although occasionally I saw tears in their eyes as they expressed their extreme bitterness about the inhumane regime of Pol Pot, they all indicated a sense of adjustment and determination to create a better future. It is this strength, vitality, and determination that enable them to hold on to their life and their participation in the arts.

In the early morning of the day before I left Cambodia, Ouk Sam-Ol, who provided my transportation for much of my trip, took me to Pich Tum Kravil's house for a last visit. Approaching the Building Blanc ("White Building") complex, I heard the beautiful sound of the pinpeat ensemble, as if it was wishing me good luck.

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CSQ Issue:

14-3 Cambodia

September 1990