Same, same but different?

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Lakhaon Kaol is one of the oldest forms of performing arts in Cambodia. Reuters

With Cambodia and Thailand sharing a common land border, it is understandable how these two nations established similar culture, traditions and arts. But sadly, along with these similarities are conflicts that began from strong assertions of ownership and originality.

In fact, heated debates continuously erupt among Khmers and Thais about a traditional dance that’s based on the Indian epic Ramayana and features mask-wearing characters in elaborate costumes. Khmers call it ‘Lakhaon Kaol’; Thais call it ‘Khon’. Both dance theaters have obvious similarities, but experts said they also bear recognisable contrasts.

The executive director of Amrita Performing Arts, Rithisal Kang, shares with Som Kanika his take on Cambodia’s traditional masked dance and how latest conflicts affected the view of Cambodians on the art.

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Rithisal Kang, executive director of Amrita Performing Arts. Photo: Supplied

Good Times2: What do you think about the controversy of Lakhaon Kaol between Cambodia and Thailand?

Rithisal Kang: It is good and bad. It is good because it has brought public attention to this ancient art form of Cambodia, even if it may mean it is getting known by no more than its name, Lakhaon Kaol. Extensive discussions of Lakhaon Kaol have taken place among young Cambodians who are either the audience or potential audience of arts in this country. Any discussion marks a sense of belongingness and the heart of contribution to the cultural fabrics of this country. Any content of the discussions are good as they bring up issues and points from different perspectives from people of different backgrounds. Their expressions are based on their existing knowledge of the art form, their related background and sentiments.

It is bad, however, because I personally have seen unfriendly and unhealthy conversations. The discussion contents I have witnessed cover from cultural history, history of the particular art form, the behaviour of the audience to efforts by policy makers, and even the commercialisation and exploitation in the arts. These contents are good, but the ways and attitude towards it have been incredibly improper. Sentiments of anger, annoyance, and disappointment have dominated the discussions, resulting in finger pointing.

Good Times2: What inspires you to continue supporting the Khmer performing arts, especially the Lakhaon Kaol dance?

Rithisal Kang: For 15 years I’ve been working in the bourgeoning art scene of Cambodia. From the early days of Amrita Performing Arts, we produced and toured numerous productions of traditional performing arts from theater to dance and music. Transferring of knowledge of performing arts and capacity-building were so essential to all of our projects. For example, a few productions of Lakhaon Kaol were produced those days. Among those, Weyreap’s Battle was mounted by the Department of Performing Arts and the Royal University of Fine Arts and produced by Amrita Performing Arts. The production was special because it was an artistic integration of regional styles of Lakhaon Kaol – Phnom Penh, Wat Svay Andet and Battambang. The over-40-people production was presented at Chulalongkorn University in Thailand in 2005, Melbourne International Arts Festival in Australia in 2006, and the Barbican Center in London in 2007. As a result, we have seen a generation of young artists from that particular Lakhaon Kaol production and many other projects showing their passion to preserve and to usher their heritage it beyond the traditional boundaries into the future.

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Cambodian dancers perform the masked theater dance Lakhaon Kaol Photo: Pinterest

Amrita Performing Arts responded to this creative passion by shifting its mission to further capacity-building in contemporary initiatives. Through these endeavors and contribution, we can see today those young courageous performing artists making their arts at local and international stage with quality and integrity no less than other countries in the region. I have witnessed their hard work, boldness, exploration, and transformation in what they are doing, in spite of the less fortunate economy for the arts in Cambodia. This is a dynamic role model to many Cambodians within the culture and arts sector and beyond.

Good Times2: What challenges do you think Lakhaon Kaol dance faces at the moment?

Rithisal Kang: Lakhaon Kaol is one of Cambodia’s ancient art forms. Just like other forms of performing arts in this country, it has the potential to become a vibrant element of the cultural scene of Cambodia. However, there are still mechanisms to be put together in place to realise this. Cambodia’s Ministry of Culture and Fine Arts funds and runs its own performing art institutions: The Secondary School of Fine Arts, Royal University of Fine Arts, and the Department of Performing Arts, not to mention its branches in the provinces and cities across the country, known as the Provincial or Municipal Department of Culture and Fine Arts. In addition, NGOs and associations have worked to the best of their ability to raise funds and implement artistic projects in Cambodia. For the past years, we have also seen groups of young practitioners, artists and non-artists, working and organizing performing arts projects. From these combined efforts, increasing audience members became exposed and more familiar with Lakhaon Kaol and other art forms. What’s missing here after all of the momentum? The audience. Of course, the truly loyal audience.

To me the challenge is creating a loyal audience. There are a couple of points I would like to make here. First, the audience tend to have the attitude of, known in Cambodian old saying as, “hay on fire”, which is big, fierce fire that is very shortly gone. They are not the sustaining audience who become enthusiastic and continue to be the theater goers. How can a school be successful in spite of the increasing number of students when the class attendance is quite low? Students come to the first days of class and disappear afterwards.

Traditional Cambodian mask. Photo: Reuters

Second, the audience still lacks the attitude of being a responsible paying audience. I have mentioned the combined efforts by the ministry, NGOs, association and groups, but the attitude of the “paying” audience would play an important role in sustaining the arts.

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The challenge for Lakhaon Kaol and other art forms is that there are many young Cambodians who can get sentimental about their heritage, but most of them are not the truly loyal audience – neither are they frequent theater goers nor the paying viewers. If we go to commercial cinemas that show blockbuster movies, we would see our young Cambodians filling the entire cinema.

Good Times2: What should Khmer people do to preserve the dance?

Rithisal Kang: My concerns are blind nationalism and cultural confrontation. When we are neither the frequent goers nor the paying audience, we cannot just be the loud speakers who voice our big, often baseless, opinions. You have two cows. You never take care of them. You go out and see two cows at your neighbour. You accuse the neighbour of stealing your cows. We cannot behave like that.

If we want to have a good garden, water the flowers in the garden. It is the same if we want to see beautiful art forms to expand bigger and wider.

When the audience becomes the paying viewers and frequent theater goers, it has two advantages. First, the proceeds from paying audience can help augment the costs incurred from performances they go to.

Organisers and producers will have another source of income in the budgeting of their productions. Second, the increasing number of frequent theater goers gives policy makers and sponsors the figures and testimonies that will encourage more investment in the cultural sector.

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