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Honouring Paul Cravath: Cambodia’s ideal archivist

Taing Rinith / Khmer Times Share:
A photo of Paul Cravath from 1975. Colin Grafton

For Cambodians, Paul Cravath’s life may not be as familiar as the “Cambodia scholar” Goerge Groslier or historian David Chandler, but like the two prominent scholars, he has dedicated his life to studying Cambodia, especially its sacred Royal Ballet dances. Although Cravath passed away just three days before Christmas last year, he is well remembered by those who knew him and for his efforts to preserve Cambodian culture, even though it meant risking his life. Taing Rinith features the life of Cambodia’s ideal archivist

Paul Cravath’s book “Earth in Flower: The Divine Mystery of the Cambodian Dance Drama”. Supplied


It was Thursday, April 5, 1975. In civil-war-torn Cambodia, the day is recognised as one of the Khmer Republic government’s final days, as Khmer Rouge forces were on their way to take over the capital, Phnom Penh.

On that day, at the Phnom Penh International Airport, where General Lon Nol had boarded a flight to the United States for safety, a small group of foreigners were also trying to leave the country. Among them was 31-year-old Paul Cravath, a University of Hawaii researcher. By then, most foreigners had already left Cambodia. In February that year, the US Embassy had told Paul to flee the country, to which he declined, claiming he had a mission to fulfill in the Kingdom.

The bus he was riding with other foreigners at the airport was attacked and Cravath barely escaped in one piece.

“Because the airport was under attack from the Khmer Rouge when we arrived, we had to hide in a bunker on the tarmac,” he recalled in an interview. “When the rockets finally stopped, we rushed to board a waiting C-130, sinking into the hanging mesh webbing that served as seats as it climbed quickly to avoid ground fire and the wreckage of other planes.”

Cravath escaped with more than his life that day. While each passenger was permitted to take only one bag aboard the flight, in Paul’s suitcase, instead of his personal belongings, were his collection of research documents on the Royal Ballet of Cambodia at the request of the Ministry of Culture.

With the ministry’s endorsement, Cravath arrived in Phnom Penh in January, 1975, to study traditional Khmer dance.

“The official US policy when I arrived in Phnom Penh in January, 1975, was that everything was fine even though the city was under siege,” said Cravath in a interview with Sara Friedl-Putnam in 2009. “It was not a good situation in which to study dance, but I was intrigued by the mystery of these women, what they did and why their reputation was so praiseworthy.”

A photo of Paul Cravath from 1975. Colin Grafton

The ministry gave Cravath extraordinary full access to the “formerly royal” palace theatres and archives, as well as to the dancers and teachers who perpetuated the ancient court tradition. Over the following three months, until he was forced to leave Cambodia, Cravath worked diligently, despite up to 100 rockets falling on the city every day, disrupting transportation, rehearsals and interviews.

After leaving Cambodia and spending a few months in Thailand and Laos, Cravath returned to the University of Hawaii in late 1975 where he devoted the next 10 years to his study, researching archives, scrutinising early French studies and interviewing refugee dancers in the US.

By 1985, Cravath had submitted his 680-page thesis and the global climate had changed drastically. The Cambodian government that had been so keen on his studies had collapsed and most of the people who had facilitated his work there had vanished. The paper had only been seen by a handful of researchers until Kent Davis, publisher of DatAsia Press, showed great interest in it and started collaborating with Cravath to turn the research into a book.

“Earth in Flower: The Divine Mystery of the Cambodian Dance Drama” was published in May, 2008. Described by Cravath as “a work of preservation, a descriptive and historical study,” its 680 pages cover the traditions of royal Khmer dance, from its origins in mythology to its role in modern times.

The book was successful and it was recognised with two literary awards. It was one of three gifts presented to the King of Cambodia by US Ambassador Carol Rodley in 2009. However, Cravath did not have much time to enjoy the fruits of 20 years of hard work, since he passed away at his home in Silver City, New Mexico, on December 22 last year. However, his legacy lives on through his book and those who knew him.

Davis said Cravath’s research helped him realise that Khmer civilization was very much alive and it will be the same for other scholars who want to study Cambodian’s culture and art history.

“He introduced me to visionary witnesses of Cambodian culture who had nearly been forgotten, including George Groslier, Roland Meyer, Henri Monod and Jean Despujols,” Davis said. “Thanks to Paul’s mentorship and inspiration, Groslier and Monod continue to teach in new editions and translations of their original works, with others in progress.”

Meanwhile, Denis Heywood, another western researcher who studies Cambodia, said Cravath’s work means so much to her. She cited him on several occasions and used one of his quotes to open a chapter of her own book on Cambodian dance.

“I love your memories of Paul’s paper…I can still remember first reading his studies of Cambodian dance in the form of a PhD thesis (which I must have found in the SOAS library) and it transformed my understanding,” Heywood said. “It was like a light shining into the depth of an art form that made such an impression on me the first time I ever saw dancers in 1993.”

Meanwhile, Ravynn Karet-Coxen, the founder and chairwoman of Sacred Dancers of Angkor, the first and only spiritual dance troupe in Cambodia, said she and her troup were honoured to have received Cravath’s attention, admiration, support and his expertise and understanding of the Cambodian Ballet through his extensive research and interviews with the last great dance mistresses in Cambodia.

“We are very grateful for the most important interview he conducted with our royal patron la Princess Buppha Devi that featured in Kent Davis’ re-print of George Groslier’s Cambodian Dancers Ancient and Modern. And we are very sad that he never was able to come and visit the Conservatoire,” Ravynn said.

“With great respect to his devotion to Cambodian dance, the Sacred Dancers of Angkor celebrate his life in a remembrance rite. May his soul rest in eternal peace surrounded with the beautiful Apsaras,” she added.

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