Restoring the Name of the ‘Cambodia Scholar’

Taing Rinith / Khmer Times No Comments Share:
The opening of the National Museum of Cambodia in 1920. Supplied

He was the first French baby to be born in Cambodia, a country he would introduce to the world through his writing and artwork. This Frenchman worked on countless projects that promoted Cambodian arts and culture, including the first museum and the first art school in the Kingdom. He even died a cruel death in the country to which he devoted his life. His name is George Groslier.

Sadly, very few Cambodians know his name today. Recently, the official biographer of ‘The Cambodia Scholar’ asked the Royal government and Cambodian people to restore the name of a street, which used to bear his name — the least the country could do to honour Groslier. The request, however, is not free from questionability, writes Taing Rinith.

TOWARDS the end of World War II, Cambodia became the place of confrontation between the French, its colonial master, and the Japanese, an Axis power. On March 9, Japanese authorities in the Kingdom toppled the French colonial regime, allowing King Sihanouk to declare Cambodia’s independence from France and its alliance with the crumbling Empire of the Rising Sun.

On the same day, all foreign nationals were abruptly rounded up by Japanese soldiers and brought to a camp near Phnom Penh’s railway station, where they were kept in crowded quarters, with four to six families crammed inside houses only big enough for one.

Groslier in Paris Studio, 1908. INSET: Sophon Samkhan, a Sculpture professor at Royal University of Fine Arts with his bust of of Groslier. GT2/Taing Rinith

French officials and military officers were jailed and tortured. One of those was 58-year-old George Groslier, a polymath and a French administrator who “studied, described, popularised and worked to preserve the arts, culture and history” of Cambodia. The fact that he was by that time retired and his 1924 book on Angkor, a topic of remarkable interest of Japan at that time, had been published by a Japanese press in Tokyo under the title Ank-ru no iseki (Ruins of Angkor) could not save him. The Japanese suspected Groslier, a shortwave radio enthusiast, was using his radio to help anti-occupation forces in Cambodia.

One day in June 1945, 27-year-old Nicole Groslier, also being detained in the urban concentration camp, was called into the camp office. She had not known what the call was for, but realised it later when she was handed her father’s glasses, shoes and remains in a box. George Groslier had died on June 18 in torture.

One year later, after the Japanese troops and authorities were withdrawn from Cambodia, on Friday, October 4, 1946, exactly 73 years by Friday last week, a group of Cambodian officials chose to name the street in front of the National Museum of Cambodia “Rue Groslier”, honouring the Frenchman born in Phnom Penh in 1887 who grew up preserving the history of Cambodia, designing the National Museum, acting as its first curator, and establishing the Royal University of Fine Arts.

“No Cambodian, whether he hails from the city or the country, could fail to know who he was,” Said Penn Nouth, then-Governor of the City of Phnom Penh, in his ceremony speech published in Bulletin de la Société des études indochinoises de Saigon (1946).

“He won us over by his affability, his great courtesy, and his most-agreeable conversation. It is impossible to overstate his prestige and authority among the monitors and students of the École des Arts. Through his generosity and big heart he made us love him like a father.”

However, in the decades that followed, the street was renamed and Groslier’s works and his lifetime of service and devotion to Cambodia were largely forgotten.

Then, in 2005, when Kent Davis, the publisher, editor, author and translator for DatAsia Press, entered Angkor Wat for the first time, he was amazed by the sculptures of the dancing devatas, or apsara, which seemed to be calling out to him to explore the mysteries and the “glory of the Khmer Empire”.

“My true role is as a ‘literary archaeologist’,” Davis said. “As my job description implies, I seek out obscure, lost and forgotten texts about Southeast Asia and restore them into new expanded editions in English and French.”

It was not long after the visit that he learned about and became impressed by George Groslier, the first Western scholar to write extensively about Cambodia’s sacred royal dance tradition. For years now, he has been working on the translation and publications of Groslier’s books, as well as serving as his biographer.

“The biggest breakthrough, however, was meeting George Groslier’s daughter Nicole in 2008. She lived near my home in Florida and, upon meeting her, she generously guided me in restoring her father’s works and memory,” Davis says.

“Before that encounter, Groslier was a bit of a mystery, with only a few short paragraphs of biography available and only a couple of low resolution photos.”

George Groslier (seated 2R) with the teachers and students of the School of Cambodian Arts, currently RUFA. Supplied

A few months ago, Davis came upon the report the ‘Inauguration of Rue Groslier’, currently known as Preah Ang Eng Street. As the National Museum of Cambodia is preparing for its 100th anniversary in 2020, Devis proposes that the recognition for this great devotee of Cambodia be reestablished by restoring the name of rue Groslier.

“As George’s contributions to Cambodia faded from memory I suspect that the street was seen as being ‘named after a Frenchman’, rather than being named for a man born in Cambodia, who devoted his live to the people, arts, culture and history of Cambodia, and probably died for Cambodia,” Davis explains.

“My goal is to see the museum’s architect and original curator, who devoted his entire life to Cambodia, recognized again by restoring his street name.”

Kent Davis is not the only one to wish for the restoration of Groslier’s name on the street. Sophon Samkhan, a Sculpture professor at the Royal University of Fine Arts and the man behind the statue of Groslier in the compound of the art college, says he welcomes the street’s renaming as an expression of gratitude to the scholars who devoted his entire life to Cambodia.

“One of Cambodian traits and identities is to show appreciations to depict thankfulness and recognition to those who were beneficial to our country, no matter how long it has been,” Samkhan says. “Restoring Rue Groslier’s name is the least we can do to honour him.”

“Despite being a foreigner, Monsieur Groslier had done far more than many Cambodians. The Royal University of Fine Arts, formerly School of Cambodian Art organised by him in 1917, has been the hub of cultural and art preservation for decades following his death.”

Meanwhile, Dr Chen Chanratana, an archaeologist and the founder of the Khmer Heritage Foundation, also supports the idea and says he would make a suggestion to the Ministry of Culture and Fine Arts and even Prime Minister Hun Sen for consideration.

The only existing picture of the “Inauguation Rue Groslier” on October 4, 1946. Supplied

“I believe we can do that as long as we have the document to prove the previous name of the street,” Chanratana says. “No matter whom Groslier was, we could not deny what he has done for Cambodia in history.”

Certainly, not everyone thinks that that Rue Groslier should be restored. Yean Raksmey, an art historian who is neither a lecturer nor alumni of RUFA, says such an act will only be seen as “bringing back a colonial influence”.

“Since receiving its independence from France in 1953, Cambodia has been decolonising itself, and Rue Groslier seeing its name changed was likely a part of the process,” Raksmey says.

“In addition, George Groslier, a French administrator, had been likely to have done all his works for the sake of his fatherland rather than for Cambodia… Plus, there had been no evidence that Cambodia would not have had its national museum or art college without Groslier.”

In the meantime, Kent Davis, Groslier’s biographer, says bringing back Rue Groslier is to “demonstrate the global importance of the Khmer civilization, and their willingness to recognise and honour those who work to preserve its arts, culture and history for the Cambodian people.”

“I have not formally petitioned anyone with the ministry and don’t really know how to do that,” he says. “I’m an editor and independent scholar, and I am not Cambodian or French but I love and respect both cultures,” he says.

“Now that I’ve assembled these details about the street, I want to share them with the Cambodian people so they can decide what is right. If Cambodian officials and Cambodia people agree, then it will happen.”

The Andre Malraux incident:

In 1923, Groslier proved his commitment to preserving Cambodia’s heritage when he organized the arrest of André Malraux, the future novelist and French Minister of Cultural Affairs. In France in 1919, when he was 18 years old, the young Malraux had eagerly read an article by Groslier’s friend, Parmentier, that appeared in an official publication by L’École française d’Extrême-Orient (EFEO), describing the impressive temple monuments of Cambodia, including those at a 10th Century temple, Banteay Srei (The Temple of Women). The article revealed the site as neglected and overgrown with vegetation. Apparently, Malraux, before he left France, made a detailed study of the applicable laws and determined (at least to his own satisfaction) that the site was abandoned property to which no one could stake legal claim. In the summer of 1923, at age 22, he set out for Indochina with his wife, Clara, and a colleague, Louis Chevasson. The party concealed their true purpose – to take priceless traditional art objects and sell them to a European art museum – by pretending to be mere sightseeing tourists and scholars. Malraux had even received special permission from the authorities to explore the Banteay Srei site. However, upon meeting Groslier, Malraux inadvertently aroused the former’s suspicions by referring repeatedly to the “commercial value” of the pieces in the Sarraut Museum.Although Groslier’s daughter recalls that her father privately referred to Malraux as le petit voleur (“the little thief”), he never otherwise spoke of the incident, perhaps agreeing that Malraux, though guilty of stealing, had been treated unfairly by the court. Source: Wikipedia

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