Khmer culture was dealt a deep and devastating blow during the ugly years of the Pol Pot regime. Performing arts were totally banned and artists, artisans, dancers and musicians who were flag bearers of a rich and old tradition, were lost, executed or died. The destruction extended well beyond the unconscionable taking of human lives - books, statues, musical instruments, artifacts and any reminders of a past were erased. It was so complete that practically only the Angkor temples stood standing, and that was because they were the legacies of a glorious Khmer empire.
There were fears that Khmer culture had been lost forever. However nowadays, there is an excitement in the air and a revival in traditional arts. With the coming home of some Cambodian artists who did escape overseas, Cambodian art is witnessing a refreshing freedom to experiment and to blend the old with the new.
The most recognizable form of Cambodian dance is the Khmer royal dance, previously only performed by females in the royal court. A highly stylized form of dance, it has similarities with dance in Thailand in terms of stylized hand gestures, ornate costumes and decorative head-dresses. Khmer classical dancers are also known as aspara (heavenly goddesses) dancers; there are more men nowadays in the troupes. Classical dance suffered severely in the 1970’s as almost all but a handful of teachers and students were killed. Those who did survive found each other and formed “colonies” to revive their tradition. Dance training was revived in refugee camps in Thailand and in 1981, the University of Fine Arts was reopened and classes resumed.
Khmer folk dancing is fast paced and dancers wear Cham, farming or tribal costumes. They dance to the music performed by a mahori orchestra which is made of players on xylophones, gong circles, percussion instruments called phiphat and traditional stringed instruments.
Social dances at weddings and celebrations draw from the royal dance, the Laotian traditional dance and from Latin steps such as the cha-cha. Ram Vong is a slow dance in a circle of men and women with graceful hand gestures and simple steps.
Pinpeat and the New Music Scene in Cambodia
Cambodian music was also a heavy casualty under the Khmer Rouge. The famous singers of its pre-war golden era were targeted by the Khmer Rouge but a new generation of overseas Khmers is producing its own sound, some influenced by rap and hip hop and others fusing traditional Cambodian singing and psychedelic rock, a throwback to vintage Cambodian pop of the 1960’s.
Classical Khmer music was thought to be performed during religious ceremonies. The oldest form of a musical ensemble is the pinpeat which performs at the wats during the festivals. Instruments used are similar to those found on Angkor bas-reliefs, pointing to Khmer music’s long tradition. The pinpeat is made up primarily of percussionists – the roneat ek (lead xylophone), roneat thung (low bamboo xylophone), kong vong touch and kong vong thom (small and large sets of tuned gongs), sampho (two-sided drum), skor thom (two large drums), and sralai (quadruple-reed instrument).
Chapaye is unique to Cambodia. It is a form of Cambodian blues accompanied by a two-stringed wooden instrument but there are few old singers left alive.
Angkor Artistry in Stone
The Angkor temples speak eloquently of the Khmer artistry in stone. But even before the Angkorian era, the Khmers were producing beautiful sculpture modeled on the sensuous Indian carvings, and truly came into their own by the 7th century AD. The Angkor temples display the different styles – the Banteay Srei style of the late 10th century is thought to be a high point in Southeast Asian art, and a strong influence in the Baphuon style that followed next. The sculptors of Angkor Wat are to be admired for the immense architecture and the vast, unbroken lengths of bas-reliefs narrating Hindu myths. During the era of the Bayon Temple, form and function came together. Look at the superb representation of the god-king Jayavarman VII on the enigmatic faces at Bayon Temple, and admire how deftly the sculptors of old captured his power but still portrayed spiritual peace.
There are many skilled stone carvers in Cambodia today. Demand from tourists has led to a crafts industry dealing in the reproduction of Angkorian era statues. Busts of Jayavarman VII and statues of Hindu gods are popular items. Les Chantiers Ecoles in Siem Reap is a school which specializes in passing on these old skills of sculpture and wood carving to young Khmers and these reproductions are sold in a beautiful store called Artisans d’Angkor . Wooden reproduction Buddhas are a favorite item with visitors as are wooden pieces duplicating Angkorian sculptures.
Khmer Architecture Old and New
The Angkor temples also represent the pinnacle of Khmer architecture which was originally built on the concept of a temple mountain. It was all the better if the temple was built on a real hill, otherwise one had to be created. A tower on a base made of several tiers symbolized the mountain. Later extra features included an entry tower and a bridge of nagas (serpent deities) leading to the temple. It is interesting to note that the seven headed naga, seen guarding many Angkor temples, symbolized the rainbow linking heaven and earth. By the time of the Bayon era, the central tower became less dominant and a flatter structure, with loads of corridors and galleries, emerged.
Colonial French architecture is seen in handsome villas and Romanesque government buildings. While there are a few examples of colonial architecture in each provincial capital, Phnom Penh has the best collection.
New Khmer architecture flourished in the late 1950s and 1960s spearheaded by Cambodian architect, Vann Molyvann. A student of Le Corbusier, he developed a Khmer form of modernism, merging its unique tradition of high-spiking triangular roofs seen in Angkor with the modernist movement that was sweeping the world at that time, yet remaining sensitive to the tropical climate.. He shaped modern Phnom Penh and some of his buildings include the Olympic Stadium, the National Theater, the University Library, the train station, all of which are in Phnom Penh, the Independence Hotel in Sihanoukville and the Sports Complex in Battambang. The enormous Independence Monument, a multi-tiered tower decorated with nagas, recalls the lotus flower domes of Angkor. Sadly, some of these buildings are disrepair, although there is a growing movement to restore them.
Breakaway Contemporary Art
A contemporary art scene is fast emerging in Cambodia. Artists are developing their own styles without being held down by tradition, while some are successfully melding classical Khmer painting with abstract art. New galleries in Phnom Penh and Siem Reap are busily promoting the work of these artists, giving them fresh momentum and a higher profile worldwide. Visual Arts Open is one such organization which fans these creative expressions. Among the more well known artists, Chhim Sothy combines spiritual inspiration and abstract concepts and Vann Nath, who is a survivor of the Tuol Sleng torture prison, recreates the horrors of his imprisonment.
Oeur Sokuntevy is one of Cambodia’s leading female artists. She produces provocative fine art and in a recent exhibition made other-worldly sculptures from rattan, coffee, handmade paper, paint and other found objects.
Khmer Heritage Arts
With an artistic heritage centuries old, it comes as no surprise that Khmer artisans today produce exquisitely carved pieces of silver, stone and wood. Pottery shares a long tradition as well and there are many ancient kilns throughout the country. Designs can be simple or elaborate, and these old techniques are now being passed down to the young Khmers. Cambodian ceramic art has gained a new lease on life with the Khmer Ceramics Center in Siem Reap giving free vocational training in ancient pottery techniques to young Cambodians. As so much artistry and mastery had been lost during the genocide, the Center set out to rekindle the art by researching antique Khmer glazing and bisque techniques It has recreated an ancient Khmer dragon kiln, the firing of which takes up to 10 days.
Exquisite Handwoven Silk
Cambodian silk is exquisite, and much of its production is woven on traditional hand looms and colored with natural dyes from plants, minerals, wood and iron. Efforts are being made to encourage the growth of mulberry trees for locally cultivated silk. There are silk farms in Siem Reap and other provinces renowed for their silk. Artisans d’Angkor in Siem Reap produces its own exquisite silk which are sold at well below international prices. Its silk centers support disabled and poor Cambodians. Mekong Blue, which is outside Stung Treung, employs dyers and weavers from poor backgrounds and sells its silk through a small showroom on site. Weaves of Cambodia in way-out Tbeng Meanchey rehabs victims of land mines who produce fine scarves and sarongs for export.
Cambodian silverwork is sought after because of its detailed hand-carving. However, Cambodian silver is not always pure silver. Be careful in the markets as what passes as silver could be just silver plate. Established shops will tell you of the purity of the silver. Feel the weight of the piece you like; pure silver is heavier than alloy or silver plate.