The Khmer Rouge's assault on the past and on artists and intellectuals was a terrible blow to Cambodian culture. Indeed for many years the common consensus among many Khmers was that their culture had been irrevocably lost. The Khmer Rouge not only did away with living bearers of Khmer culture, it also destroyed cultural artefacts, statues, musical instruments, books and anything that served as a reminder of a past it wished to efface (strangely, the temples of Angkor survived). Despite this, Cambodia today is witnessing a resurgence of traditional arts and a limited amount of experimentation in modern arts. A trip to the School of Fine Arts in Phnom Penh is evidence of the extent to which Khmer culture has bounced back.
More than any of the other traditional arts, Cambodia's royal ballet is a tangible link with the glory of Angkor. Early in his reign, King Sihanouk released the traditional harem of royal apsara (heavenly nymphs) that went with the crown. Nevertheless, prior to the Pol Pot regime, classical ballet was still taught at the palace. Its traditions stretched long into the past, when the art of the apsara redounded to the glory of the divine king.
Cambodian court dance is related to the dance of Thailand, Java and India. They all share the same cultural sources, and many of the dances enact scenes from the Hindu Ramayana. Dance fared particularly badly during the Pol Pot years. Very few dancers and teachers survived, and only one old woman survived who knew how to make the elaborate costumes that are sewn piece by piece onto the dancers before a performance. In 1981, with a handful of teachers, the School of Fine Arts was reopened and the training of dance students resumed. For the first intake of students, preference was given to orphans.
At a performance of royal dance, you will see much that resembles Thai .dance (unless you are expert in such things): the same stylised hand movements; the same sequined, lame costumes; the same pulent stupa-like head wear. Though many popular dances staged nowadays also mix elements of more lively folk dance into the performance. Where traditionally royal dance was an all-female affair (with the exception of the role of the monkey), often there are now more male dancers featured.
Another interesting dance tradition is lkhaon khaol, Cambodia's masked theatre. Traditionally all the roles are played by men, like kabuki in Japan and some of the regional opera styles in China. In times past it was a popular form of entertainment, with troupes touring the country presenting performances of the Ramayana over several evenings. A narrator presides over the performance, providing dialogue and in - structions to the small accompanying orchestra. Short performances of masked theatre are sometimes included in shows put on for foreign tourists.
The bas-reliefs on some of the monuments in the Angkor region depict musicians and apsara holding instruments. The instruments that are depicted are similar to the traditional Khmer instruments of today, which suggests that Cambodia has a long musical tradition all its own. Traditionally the music of Cambodia was an accompaniment to a ritual or performance that had religious significance. Musicologists have identified six types of musical ensemble, each used in different settings. The most traditional of these is the areak ka. This is an ensemble that performs music at weddings. The instruments used include a tro khmae (three-stringed fiddle), a khsae muoy (singled-stringed bowed instrument) and skor areak (drums), among others.
Instruments used in performances of dance are naturally more percussive. If you see a dance performance in Cambodia you will probably see a reduced ensemble of musicians performing, though sometimes the dances are performed to taped music. The instruments generally include at least one stringed instrument, a roneat (xylophone) and sets of drums and cymbals.
Much of Cambodia's traditional music was lost during the Pol Pot era. During this time many Khmers settled in the USA, where a lively Khmer pop industry developed. Influenced by US music and later exported back to Cambodia, it has been enormously popular. Phnom Penh too has a burgeoning pop industry, and it is easy to join in the fun by visiting one of the innumerable karaoke bars around the country.
Khmer architecture reached its period of greatest magnificence during the Angkorian era (the 9th to 14th centuries). Some of the finest examples of architecture from this period are Angkor Wat and the structures of Angkor Thorn. See the Temples of Angkor special section for more information on the architectural styles of the Angkor era.
Today, most rural Cambodian houses are I built on high wood pilings (if the family can afford it) and have thatch roofs, walls made of palm mats and floors of woven bamboo strips resting on bamboo joists. The shady space underneath is used for storage and for people to relax at midday.
Even in the pre-Angkor era, in the periods generally referred to as Funan and Chen la, the people of Cambodia were producing masterfully sensuous sculpture that was no simple copy of the Indian forms it was modelled on. Some scholars maintain that the Cambodian forms are unrivalled in India itself.
The earliest surviving Cambodian sculpture dates from the 6th century. Most of it depicts Vishnu with four or eight arms. Generally Vishnu has acquired Indochinese facial characteristics and is more muscular than similar Indian sculpture, in which divinities tend towards rounded flabbiness. A large eight-armed Vishnu from this period is displayed at the National Museum in Phnom Penh.
Also on display at the National Museum is a statue of Harihara, a divinity who combines aspects of both Vishnu and Shiva. The statue dates from the end of the 7th century, and the sensuous plasticity of the musculature prefigures the technical accomplishment of Angkor era art.
The sculpture of the pre-Angkor period is not restricted to the depiction of Hindu deities. This period also features much Buddhist-inspired sculpture, mainly in the form of Bodhisattva. By the 9th century and the beginning of the Angkor era proper, however, the sculptures become exclusively Hindu-inspired. Innovations of the early Angkor era include free-standing sculpture that dispenses with the stone aureole that in earlier works supported the multiple arms of Hindu deities. The faces assume an air of tranquillity, and the overall effect is less animated. In the National Museum, look for the statue of Shiva from the Bakong, Roluos, for an example of early Angkorian sculpture: the sculpture depicts a stocky frame and a smiling face that is characteristic of this period. The Banteay Srei style of the late 10th century is commonly regarded as a high point in the evolution of South-East Asian art. The National Museum has a splendid piece from this period: a sandstone statue of Shiva holding Uma, his wife, on his knee. The Baphuon style of the 11th century was inspired to a certain extent by the sculpture of Banteay Srei, producing some of the finest works to have survived into the 20th century. In the National Museum, look for the life-size Vishnu Reclining, which is featured in the bronze display hall. Only the head, shoulders and two right arms have survived; it was once inlaid with precious metal and gems that would have brought the statue to life.
The statuary of the Angkor Wat period is felt to be conservative and stilted, lacking the grace of much earlier work. The genius of this period manifests itself more clearly in the architecture and fabulous bas-reliefs of Angkor Wat itself. The final high point in Angkorian sculpture is the Bayon period from the end of the 12th century to the beginning of the 13th. In the National Museum in Phnom Penh, look for the superb representation of Jayavarman VII, an image that simultaneously projects great power and sublime tranquility. Also represented from this period is the simple image of Jayarajadevi from Preah Khan in central Cambodia. Sculpture in Cambodia went into decline from the end of the Angkor era.
Cambodians complain that their film industry is all but dead. In 1989 some 200 film companies were registered with the Cinema Department. By mid-1995 only six were left. Local directors point to low cinema audience numbers and the popularity of foreign videos as the main problem. Even Prime Minister Hun Sen has weighed in on the issue, claiming that local scriptwriters should 'write more happy endings' if they want to revive Cambodian film.
At least one Cambodian director has had success in recent years, though. Rithy Panh's People of the Rice Fields was nominated for the Palme d'Or at the Cannes Film Festival in May 1995. The film touches only fleetingly on the Khmer Rouge, depicting the lives of a family eking out an arduous existence in the rice fields. Rithy Panh has been active in encouraging other young Cambodians to take up film making, holding screenwriting seminars in Phnom Penh. He has plans to make another feature film
Sihanouk 8& the Silver Screen
Between 1966 and 1969 Sihanouk wrote, directed and produced nine feature films, a figure that would put the average workaholic Hollywood director to shame. Sihanouk took the business of making films very seriously, and family and officials were called upon to do their bit - the minister of foreign affairs played the male lead in Sihanouk's first feature, Apsara (Heavenly Nymph). When, in the same movie, a show of military hardware was required, the air force was brought into action, as was the army's fleet of elicopters.
The world premiere of Apsara was something of a flop, the foreign community failing to patronise the movie. Although, as Milton Osbourne says in his biography Sihanouk - Prince of Light, Prince of Darkness, the Chinese embassy staff did at least have the good manners to excuse themselves on the pretext of pressing business elsewhere - 'because of the Cultural Revolution'.
Not that this put the royal film maker off. On the contrary, Sihanouk continued to make movies, often taking on the leading role himself. Notable performances saw him as a spirit of the forest and as a victorious general. Perhaps it was no surprise, given the king's apparent addiction to the world of celluloid dreams, that Cambodia should challenge Cannes and Berlin with its Phnom Penh International Film Festival. The festival was held twice, in 1968 and 1969. Sihanouk won the grand prize on both occasions