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Khmer Civilization and Tradition (in English)Posted: 2009-10-01 23:20:29   Replies: 0
Cambodia Performing Arts (2)

Development of the Khmer classical performance tradition
Court musicians from the kingdom of Funan formed part of a diplomatic mission sent to the Chinese emperor as early as 243 CE, and during the 6th century female dancers were dedicated to the Hindu temples of Chenla. Although the exact nature of pre-Angkorian music and dance remains unclear, the significant increase in international trade which characterised the period would have brought both Indian and Chinese influence strongly to bear on all forms of cultural expression within the region.
The extent of Chinese cultural infiltration during the first millennium CE was not insignificant and may be perceived today in many aspects of Khmer music, not least the widespread use of instruments of sinitic derivation such as the moon-shaped lute known as the chapei (equivalent to the Chinese yue qin), the two-stringed fiddle known as the tro (equivalent to the Chinese hu qin) and the 14-stringed zither known as the khoeum (equivalent to the Chinese zheng). However, the most important influence in the emergence of a Khmer classical performing arts tradition, both directly and by way of the Indonesian archipelago, was that of India.
The Khmer courtly music and dance performed today originated with the sponsorship of the Angkorian monarchs from the 9th century onwards. Jayavarman II (802-850), founder of the Angkorian kingdom, is generally credited for the introduction into Cambodia of the Indian devaraja (god-king) cult practised there, along with its associated performance genres.
Female courtly dance was probably an integral part of the ritual to enhance the presumed magico-religious powers of the king through their performance, the harem of royal wife-dancers in effect celebrated the union of the ruler and divine power, linking him to the chthonic forces of earth and fertility.
As elsewhere in South East Asia, the Hindu Ramayana and (to a lesser extent) Mahabharata epics and the jataka (lives of Boddhissatva kings and princes) were source materials for dance-drama and other courtly theatre genres such as male masked dance and shadow theatre.
Cambodian classical dance or lakhaon kbach boran is featured extensively on the bas-reliefs of the Khmer temples. Its most important and sacred form is the robam apsara or 'heavenly' female dance-drama, which today comprises some 60 pure dance pieces and 40 dance-dramas. In the latter the dancers mime the action while a chorus of female singers delivers the text to the accompaniment of a pinpeat ensemble (see below). The Khmer female dance has much in common with its Thai and Lao derivatives, but is characteristically slower, subtler and generally more representative of an act of worship. In 2003 Lakhaon kbach boran was recognised by UNESCO as a Masterpiece of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity at the time one of only 47 art forms worldwide to receive this recognition.
The female dance is complemented by a masked male dance-drama known as lakhaon khaol, which takes its storyline from the Raemker, a Khmer version of the Ramayana commissioned during the early Angorian period. Essentially a moral tale, the Raemker describes the adventures of Prince Rama, an incarnation of the god Vishnu. Before Rama's birth the gods determined that his life would be one of a hero, but that he would be tested by various trials and tribulations. Renouncing his throne, the prince is banished and wanders in the wilderness for many years with his beautiful wife Sita and his brother Lahksman. Sita is abducted by the evil King Ravana, but Rama eventually finds her with the help of Hanuman, King of the Monkeys and son of the God of the Wind. In lakhaon khaol male dancers played both male and female roles; over the centuries a lesser-known female version of the genre known as lakhaon paol srei also developed.
Both lakhaon kbach boran and lakhaon khaol involve singing and the recitation of narrative verses by a chorus sitting with an accompanying pinpeat ensemble (see below).
The aesthetics and repertoire of lakhaon khaol betray its origins as a human development of that other important classical genre, the puppet play. Cambodia preserves two main types of shadow puppetry sbek toch or 'little skin', which uses small, cut and jointed leather figures akin to those found in its Javanese progenitor wayang kulit, and sbek thom or 'big skin', a unique form in which large engraved two-dimensional leather puppets with no moving parts are manipulated both in front of and behind a screen by dancing puppeteers. In 2005 sbek thom was recognised by UNESCO as a Masterpiece of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity.
In recent years experts at the Ministry of Culture and Fine Arts have revived a related third form of puppetry known as sbek por, which is presented in daylight using medium-sized coloured leather puppets with no moving parts.
Whilst gongs and metallophones were probably introduced into Cambodia at a much earlier date, the pinpeat, a dedicated musical ensemble associated most closely with all types of Khmer classical performance, is believed to have developed at the Angkorian court. Comprising a maximum of 10 musicians, it shares many structural features with the gamelan of the Malay world on which it was based, bringing together various-sized graded gong chimes set into circular rattan frames known as khong wong with wooden xylophones known as roneat, metallophones, suspended gongs, drums, cymbals and wind instruments such as the double-reed oboe known as the sralai (formerly called pi shanai).
The pinpeat gave rise to other types of Khmer ensemble, including the khlang chnak and phlaeng knong schoor orchestras, which are associated with funeral rites, and the string-dominated phlaeng mahaori orchestra, which was traditionally associated with temple ceremonies and offerings to the gods. The pinpeat is believed to have been the inspiration behind the Thai and Lao piphat and the Burmese hsiang.
In subsequent centuries, as the power of Angkor declined and the Siamese, Việt, Lao and Burmese struggled for ascendancy in the region, the rulers of Siam, Lane Xang (Laos) and Burma each keen to replicate the former glories of Angkor in their own dominions sought to encourage the spread of similar performing arts traditions. It is in this way that the Thai, Lao and Burmese female and masked male dance-drama and Thai and Lao shadow puppet traditions are thought to have been established. The story was to come full circle in the 19th century, when Khmer King Ang Duong (1796-1859) sought to restructure Cambodian court performance with the assistance of experts from Thailand.
It is interesting to note that the political significance of the female classical dance, which linked the ruler with the world of the ancestors and spirits and thus assured him of god-like powers, was recognised even by the French colonial administration its decision in 1928 to transfer the royal company to the charge of the cole des arts Cambodgiens (forerunner of the Royal University of Fine Arts) was clearly made with a view to being seen to exercise their rights according to the old adage that he who controlled the dance controlled the nation. The royal troupe was dissolved in 1942 by the Vichy government but revived in 1948.
Something of a renaissance in the female and male masked dance tradition took place during the Sangkum Reastr Niyum period, when Queen Sisowath Monivong Kossomak Neary Rath Vattana, mother of King Norodom Sihanouk, took over the administration of the court troupe, revitalising and streamlining its repertoire.
With the construction of new theatre auditoria in major centres of population during the 1960s, the so-called Cambodian Royal Ballet began performing regularly, for both domestic audiences and tourists. During this period the troupe also became a highly successful vehicle for international cultural diplomacy, giving performances at official receptions and undertaking several successful performance tours overseas.
In the aftermath of the tragedy of 1975-1979 the few surviving members of the former royal dance troupe slowly regrouped. By 1980 the company had been transferred, as in neighbouring Thailand, to the control of the government. It has since operated as but one component of the National Theatre Company, which has also revived the once courtly art of shadow puppetry (long since relegated to the status of a village art in Cambodia) in addition to maintaining a commitment to other forms of Khmer theatre, including the folkloric and circus arts. In this connection it should be mentioned that, since the national classical dance troupe is no longer directly associated with the palace, it is technically incorrect to refer to it as the Cambodian Royal Ballet, although foreign promoters still tend to do so when publicising foreign tours.

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