The Immortals

When wandering through the labyrinthine extents of ancient monuments, wonders of the world and so on, one doesn’t expect to come across bulletholes. But Angkor Wat is studded with many such reminders of the violence that has engulfed its surroundings. In the light of an early December morning, thrown up from behind the colossal temple, these pock-marks – big ones shrapnel, little ones slugs – are betrayed by their faint serration, which catches the light in a different way from other, more weather-worn scars of old age.

The newer marks stand as a testament to the decades when no unarmed person could access these temples. The most famous segment of this period was the time between 1975 and 1979, when the Khmer Rouge controled Cambodia. It is widely accepted that the only reason the temples of Angkor still stand today is because they served as a reminder of the past glories of an agrarian Khmer empire, akin to whatever it was that the Angkar, high council of the Khmer Rouge, had in mind for their revolutionary order. Fighting raged in their vicinity for years, but the temples themselves were almost entirely let alone.

Cambodia’s populace was never given as much leeway. Loung Ung, author of First They Killed My Father, recounts a childhood memory of Khmer Rouge road blocks on routes out of Phnom Penh, where people were told that civil servants, teachers, intellectuals and soldiers were required to report for duty, because their skills were needed by the new government. Those who turned up were genially led to jeeps, driven to fields and stadiums, and shot en masse. The Khmer Rouge believed that most pursuits of the mind were of no value to a pure, productive existence, and accordingly wielded a scythe over the necks of all artists and intellectuals.

In demanding, as the Khmer Rouge did, that such unnecessary fripperies be wiped out, it also emphasises the power of the artists. This, as we know, is the flipside to any act of censorship or silencing. Why go to all that trouble to eradicate dancers (or gays, or Jews, or Tutsis) if not for the fact that they are threats to you, things that you fear? The Khmer Rouge succeeded in instilling a determination in Cambodians, a certainty that what they have is valuable and must be treated as such, for nobody goes to such lengths to steal what is worthless. What, then, is the fate of societies that are being bowdlerised but do not know, or do not care? If ‘fuck’ was not such a mighty word, if sex was not so volatile and beautiful, if communism was bereft of noble ideals, if racial intermingling and cultural unanimity were not such important facets of politics, then there’d be no reason for anyone to fear the seductiveness of such things and attempt to blot them out. Only pity befits those suffocated in their sleep.

Extracting Immortality

It was in the twelfth century that Suryavarman II, perhaps spurred by the prospect of the aforementioned December light, marshalled the puissant Khmer empire to construct Angkor Wat, which is considered an architectural paradigm. At dawn, when the night has been full-of-the-moon, the looming temple-mountain – representative of Mount Meru, centre of the world and home of the gods in Hindu mythology – vies for godly glory between the newborn sun and the pregnant moon.

It was under that very moon that the great Hindu Khmer rulers would gather to witness the sacred Apsara dance, performed by girls hand-picked from childhood. These rulers considered themselves not merely kings, but god – kings, devaraja, invested with divine power from above and within; they attempted, using sign, symbol and stone, to assert their communion with the heavens.

Back then Apsara was performed in palace courtyards and temple sanctums, for god and godly mortal alone. Today, though, there are numerous restaurants, hotels and other till-centric establishments around Phnom Penh and Siem Reap where one may witness this art without having to be a deity or a king. Most of them, if the Rough Guide is to be trusted, are perfectly competent. It’s not the worst outcome for this ancient form, but it’s certainly a strange one, considering its vaulted origins.

The third enclosing wall of Angkor Wat is carved in daedal bas-reliefs, visual accounts of occasions both celestial and fleshly. The centrepiece of these carvings is a depiction of the churning of the sea of milk, a cosmogonic tale cardinal to Hinduism. It is said that the gods and demons, while usually antagonistic, united at one point to churn the primordial ocean of milk and extract the essence of immortality. A giant serpent, or naga, lent itself as a rope, with the demons taking hold of one end and the gods the other. Heaving in turn for thousands of years, they chopped up all the beasts and fishes in the sea, but sparked off life as a fortunate side-effect; delicate angels, or Apsaras, flew out of the sea and, due to their consummate grace and beauty, became performers to the gods themselves. Apart from being dotted with hundreds of carvings of these voluptuous, courtly creatures, each one with a unique face and outfit, Angkot Wat also played host to the mortal equivalent – the royal troupe, who were said to become possessed by these angelic beauties every time they danced.

Grand Ancient Endeavour

In the 1960s Princess Buppha Devi, daughter of King Norodom Sihanouk and a principal figure in the royal troupe, began popularising the dance as a piece of Cambodia’s cultural heritage, bringing it beyond the palace walls for the first time. Under the guidance of her grandmother she toured the world and, more importantly, Cambodia itself. She became a professor of culture and traditional dance at the School of Fine Arts in Phnom Penh, until 1970, the year the Cambodian monarchy was removed by the American-backed government of General Lon Nol. She only returned to a position of official significance in 1991, when she was named Deputy Minister of Culture and Fine Arts. Today, as Minister of the same, she participates in efforts that are not only about sharing Apsara, but also reassembling it.

These days Apsara education is conducted at organisations such as the Apsara Arts Association, which holds free classes for children, selecting the best to move on to more advanced levels. The cream of Cambodian dancers find their way to the School of Fine Arts in Phnom Penh, now known as the Royal University of Fine Arts (RUFA), where they can spend up to eight years studying and refining their abilities. Inevitably, they end up seeking work at restaurants and hotels, although the zenith of talent get to join performance groups such as Sovanna Phum, which hosts Apsara performances at their small theatrette in central Phnom Penh, merging the dance with other local performing arts such as shadow puppetry.

Soaking up the heady brew of culture that wafts from one of Sovanna Phum’s exceptional shows, any Malaysian might be left wondering why our art lacks the richness, or the intensity, or the priority that seem to come as a given to Khmers.

We have no Angkor Wat, no soaring cones of sandstone and laterite clamouring to be favoured with   significance, no national emblem of grand ancient endeavour. Is this why we have consigned our ancient arts to the back of the ice-box? Or maybe the Cambodian attitude towards such things has more sinister origins; because unlike us, they have had to struggle to orient their opinions while still dripping with the blood of a horrific baptism.

The cohesiveness and evolvedness of Sovanna Phum’s shows are particularly astounding because it hasn’t been a decade since Apsara re-emerged from a 16-year coma, one it might well have not survived at all. Apsara, like all of Khmer art, suffered a clubbing due to a perennial human predicament – the clash of ideas.

Excess Punishable by Death

During the reign of Jayavarman VII, in the late twelfth century, such a clash could easily have occured as the Khmer empire was steered into Buddhism and the king adorned Angkor with the kindly countenance of Lokesvara, a benevolent, near-transcendent Buddhist saint, or Bodhisattva. However, there was no violence; it was a cosmopolitan time, as many temples were considered multi-denominational and the former traditions remained. Jayavarman VII himself had over 3000 Apsara dancers in his court. When leaning against the naga balustrade that edges Angkor Wat’s western causeway, it’s not too difficult to envision thousands of dancers lined up across the fields, swaying in slow synergy, conveying meaning with each gesture and inflection. What is difficult to envision is how anyone could react to such a scene with hatred, although perhaps this is an underestimation of the human spirit’s depths. Many, many years after Jayavarman Vll’s enormous troupe, an idea was hatched that had no place for Apsara, or any art at all, framing it as an excess punishable by death.

It is said that when Khmer Rouge troops first marched into Phnom Penh there was jubilation in the streets. Mostly, people were just relieved that the civil war was over, unaware that within hours new and greater miseries would be upon them. It didn’t take long for the ‘cleansing’ to begin. Time rewound into timelessness, and 1975 was proclaimed Year Zero; normal city folk were marched out posthaste into the countryside, to people agrarian communes conceived to exploit every iota of produce the land had to yield – and a considerable amount it didn’t. Those who were enslaved were among the fortunate, for civil servants, military members, doctors, teachers, lawyers, painters, writers, actors, musicians, sculptors, poets and dancers were all killed almost as soon as they were identified.

To have any hope of survival, most had to disguise themselves and hope to blend in amongst the anonymous masses. They were herded around the country, from labour camp to labour camp, the urbanites being treated as the lowest of life-forms, followed by farmers and peasants, who were closer to the regime’s ideal citizen. All had to adapt quickly or perish. Among them was Em Theay, who had been a member of the royal dance troupe from the age of 15 and had, in fact, just finished a performance the very moment news arrived of the new junta’s ascendance. Despite her best efforts, word got out that she was a dancer and it was only a combination of luck and morbid curiosity that secured her life – her captor’s intrigue led to demands that she sing and dance as part of her daily duties, over and above her work in the paddy fields.

Others learned how devoted the Khmer Rouge was to the purification of Cambodia. Proeung Chhieng was also a member of the royal troupe, who’d trained from the age of seven to assume the role of Hanuman – the monkey-god who plays a principal part in the Reamker, one of the most important dance-fables. In 1975, he’d been on a scholarship to North Korea. Braving uncertainty, Chhieng decided to heed the call of Pol Pot, who issued a summons to all Cambodians abroad, declaring that their country needed them. In truth, the Khmer Rouge’s ravenous machine had run out of fuel, almost as though it needed killing in order to sustain itself, and hence these remnants of pre-revolutionary life – ‘traitors’ according to the dicta of the regime – were lured home. It speaks volumes about the black hole of secrecy that hovered over the country at the time, since none of the returning crowd knew of the nightmare that had sunk its teeth into their home, not until it was too late and the jaws had closed around them too. Upon arriving, Chhieng and others were rounded up and taken straight to detention centres, and soon he learnt that the only way to survive would be to conceal the fact that he was a dancer.

To have revealed oneself as an exponent of forbidden disciplines would have invited branding as a traitor, leading to confinement and torture in facilities such as Phnom Penh’s Toul Sleng prison, or S-21 as it was known. Ifs a former high school that was requisitioned, cheery tiled flooring and all, as a facility for extracting confessions from more reticent ‘traitors’. The horror of the place was so potent that Vietnamese troops who ‘discovered’ it didn’t disturb anything, beyond burying the dead and freeing the scant number of survivors. To this day it stays largely untouched, as the ‘Toul Sleng Genocide Museum’. Entering it, one still finds crude brick and cement walls erected to subdivide classrooms into batteries of tiny cells. Barbed wire barriers have been strung up to hug the upper floors, as a deterrent if ever a prisoner thought of flinging herself off. At ground level, terrifyingly minimal instruments of torture dwell indoors, while outside the school’s fitness course has also been put to similar use, in a chilling display of practical ingenuity. Worst of all, amorphous brown stains, indeterminate of origin and thus all the more gruesomely evocative, still decorate corridors all over the facility.

The Khmer Rouge machine was more Rube Goldberg than BMW; eventually it started sputtering about with frightening randomness, waving its rusty blades every which way as the experiment collapsed around itself. Many of those imprisoned and tortured at S-21 were Khmer Rouge cadre who had lost their footing in the foggy distrust that submersed the final days of the regime. The famed ‘killing field’ at Choeung Ek, outside Phnom Penh, became eerily quiet as shootings ended and, in an effort to conserve ammunition, bludgeonings began. In the last days the condemned were simply tied to vehicles and dragged out of Toul Sleng, in the general direction of Choeung Ek, to be dumped by the roadside as soon as they were clearly dead.

Washing off the Blood

Many estimates have it that by 1979, when the Vietnamese finally decided enough was enough and ousted Pol Pot and his comrades, at least 90% of Cambodia’s artists and intellectuals had been put to death. This is why Em Theay, for example, is referred to as the ‘tenth dancer’. Apsara was particularly devastated, for the Khmer Rouge had gone out of their way to obliterate it, murdering the living conduits of its oral teachings and destroying the few written records that existed.

How a proud and rich culture could have suffered such a ghastly implosion, and become the first to ever perpetrate genocide on themselves, is a cypher whose key resides in a cupboard of monsters. But, having been through suppression so harsh it defies empathy, Cambodia has decided not to simply cultivate its artistic legacy in quiet pastures, but to champion and flaunt it.

As Cambodia washed off the blood and moved into the next phase of its history, its surviving artists rallied together to rebuild. In 1980 an arts festival was organised in Phnom Penh’s Bassac Theatre, perhaps the first ever held with the primary aim of determining how many artists were still alive. The School of Fine Arts reopened a year later. Dancers began emerging out of the background, one of whom was Sophiline Cheam Shapiro, who was hired to travel to remote provinces and perform on the back of a Russian truck, in order to help establish the Vietnamese occupation government’s authentically Khmer credentials. She was often told to avoid wearing too much make-up and to perform earlier in the day, so as not to incur the wrath of the Khmer Rouge, who remained an active threat until the end of the millennium, backed by ASEAN member states, the US and China.

In 1979, thousands of Cambodians were housed in refugee camps in Thailand, just along the border, in areas where the Khmer Rouge itself found sanctuary. In these camps artists sought one another, built makeshift stages, organised classes, cobbled together costumes and staged performances that were attended by many refugees, all straining to reclaim what had been lost. People there were stranded for many years, and those who didn’t find asylum overseas returned home later on to find that, slowly, a resuscitation had been effected. Classes had started once more in RUFA. Today Proeung Chhieng is dean of RUFA, and struggles to help his students, many of whom can’t secure work after they graduate. During a breakthrough tour to the US in 2001, six of his young dancers claimed asylum and refused to return to Cambodia. Many talented people come to him unable to pay for their education with cash, and offer him rice instead.

Despite the strenuous efforts of surviving artists, the reconstruction of Apsara has been an unimaginably time-­consuming task. It was only in 1995, a full 16 years after the defeat of the Khmer Rouge, that the first public performance was held, at Angkor Wat. Today the struggle has been prolonged by new challenges born out of the country’s rush to catch up with the rest of the region. Artists must now assert their viability within a fiscal framework. The art of making the rich richer – a pillar of ‘tiger’ economics – has become the nation’s priority. But at least Cambodia’s people still struggle, and have not fallen asleep to the sweet lullabies.

First Published: 08.04.2005 on Kakiseni

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