Tradition of Masked Dancers Lives On in Cambodia

13 January, 2019

Cambodia's centuries-old tradition of masked dance was almost completely lost during the genocidal rule of the Khmer Rouge. But a small number of people have managed to keep the ancient art alive. Now, they are passing it down to a new generation.

The Khmer Rouge came to power in 1975 after a bloody, five-year civil war. During the Communist group's rule, it opposed education and religion and banned Cambodia's traditional arts and written language.

An estimated 1.7 million Cambodians were killed in the four years the Khmer Rouge was in power. The deaths were mostly caused by starvation, overwork, disease, execution or torture. Among the victims were artists, writers and dancers.

Sun Rithy's father and grandfather were both performers of the country's traditional dance, which is called Lakhon Khol. Study of the dance was banned in Cambodia during most of Sun Rithy's childhood.

"In the Khmer Rouge, I was young and they didn't teach people dance. Lakhon Khol was destroyed," he told the Reuters news agency.

Sun Rithy was finally able to start learning the dance once the Khmer Rouge was removed from power. He was 14 at the time. He is now 48 years old and leads one of the last remaining groups performing the dance. The group includes about 20 performers and students between the ages of 6 and 15.

Sun Rithy says the best way to help the tradition survive is by teaching the dance to new generations. "I don't want Lakhon Khol to go extinct," he said.

The traditional dance was recently identified by the United Nations as an art form that should be protected. The U.N.'s Education, Science and Cultural Organization, or UNESCO, added Lakhon Khol to its Intangible Cultural Heritage list.

Different kinds of the dance are performed in other nations in Southeast Asia as well. The dancers wear colorful painted masks that are made to look similar to characters from an ancient poem. The poem is called Ramayana. It tells the story of a prince who rescues his wife from a demon with help from an army of monkeys.

People who study the dance recently rehearsed at a special theater at a Buddhist temple outside Cambodia's capital, Phnom Penh.

Pum Pork said his 11-year-old son, Pum Meta, is learning the dance. "I want to have my son trained to perform so that in the future we won't lose the ancient art," he said.

Dancers get ready backstage before a performance of masked theater known as Lakhon Khon in Cambodia. Picture taken November 7, 2018. (REUTERS/Athit Perawongmetha)
Dancers get ready backstage before a performance of masked theater known as Lakhon Khon in Cambodia. Picture taken November 7, 2018. (REUTERS/Athit Perawongmetha)

Cambodia's Minister of Culture and Fine Arts, Phoeurng Sackona, said the dance needs to be protected. She urged all people to get involved to help. "Elderly performers are trying to preserve the dance," she told Reuters. "But it is up to young people whether they agree or not to receive knowledge from the elders."

Neighboring Thailand's version of the dance has not suffered the same problems. But dancers there also see the importance of bringing the art to a new generation of performers.

In Thailand, the dance tradition is called Khon. It is based on royal history. Many Thai schools and universities now teach the dance.

Mom Luang Pongsawad Sukhasvasti followed in his father's footsteps in making Khon masks. He started doing so at age 10. Now he is 67. He still makes dance masks by hand from his home in Thailand's Ayutthaya province, north of Bangkok.

Pongsawad said each mask takes about a month to complete. He says he hopes the UNESCO listing will raise awareness of the issue.

"Teachers now must do more than teaching the dance. They need to help students understand the roots, as well, to preserve it," he said.

I'm Bryan Lynn.

Reuters reported on this story. Bryan Lynn adapted it for VOA Learning English. Ashley Thompson was the editor.

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Words in This Story

mask n. a covering that hides the face

extinct adj. no longer existing

demon n. an evil spirit

rehearse v. to practice a play, dance, etc. in order to prepare for a performance

elderly adj. an old or aging person

preserve v. to keep something the same or prevent it from being damaged or destroyed