From the Phnom Penh Post, October 29 - November
monkeys of men in lakhaoun khaol
By Sarah Stephens
Demonic grinning monkey masks loom down at the visitor, some painted
violent red, others icy blue. Intricate designs on the faces are offset
by towering gold headpieces, creating a regal yet eerie effect. These
are hand-made masks of lakhaoun khaol, a form of Khmer theater,
and they are the main draw of a new exhibition opening this week in
Phnom Penh, at the newly renovated Reyum Gallery (formerly known as
Khaol, or as it has been translated, "monkey theater",
is the name given to a famous section of the Reamker (the Cambodian
version of the Hindu epic the Ramayana), where armies of monkeys and
demons enact a vicious battle. Dancers mimicking monkey behaviour spring
across the stage in leaps and bounds, wearing intricate jeweled costumes
and the brightly-painted masks. But
the story behind Lakhaoun Khaol is almost as fascinating as the dance
itself, and, say the curators, is a key element to the exhibition.
were two types of Lakhaoun Khaol," says Ly Daravuth, co-curator
of the exhibition. "There was firstly what I would call the high
version, the court version which was performed at the palace. And then
there is the village version, the local performances, which have significant
court version is the one that most tourists and those living in Phnom
Penh will have seen, Daravuth and co-curator Ingrid Muan stress that
the village variation is just as important, if not more so, because
of its ritualistic meaning.
of the dance are unclear, but it is certain that in the nineteenth century,
the Royal Palace sent talent scouts out into the provinces to find dancers
who could perform
lakhaoun khaol, in order to create a royal troupe. Traditionally
performed by men only (as it still is in the provinces), the dance eventually
became most popular when performed by the Palace's female-only troupe.
In the village
of Vat Svay Andaet, where the dance is performed annually at New Year,
superstitious meaning is attached to the performance, explains Daravuth."The
important thing for them is that they believe that they must provide
a good performance, and must perform it at the right time, or great
calamities will befall the village".
to villagers, in 1966 a section of the play where characters pray for
rain was suddenly answered far too literally. Despite scorching heat
and dry weather for many months, in the middle of the performance the
heavens suddenly opened, drenching the participants and forcing the
cancellation for the rest of the seven-day extravaganza. "And in
1964," adds Muan, "the first four days of lakhaoun khaol
were performed in the village, but they then decided to take the
rest of the performance to another village. When they returned home,
there was an outbreak of cholera, which killed 800 people." Since
then the villagers have been careful to prepare the play in exactly
the right way, with special ceremonies created to appease the spirits
before the play starts.
go into a trance, and call on the spirits of the demons and monkeys,"
explains Muan. "The masks themselves are believed to come to life,
with the spirits inside them... Gestures are made over their eyes, as
if opening them, and finally a mirror is placed in front of the mask
so that the spirit can see what it looks like, and who it is."
features old photographs and descriptions of village-based as well as
court-based performances, but the real draw is a set of lakhaoun
khaol masks, 30 in all, commissioned for the show and created by
master lacquer-maker An Sok. Regular gallery-goers may remember samples
of An Sok's work being shown earlier this year in a traditional art
exhibition at the gallery.
is a continuation of the earlier theme," says Daravuth, explaining
that the gallery now comprises the whole building rather than just a
small section, as before. "We have expanded, so now we are looking
much more at the mysteries of the whole performance, rather than just
is running from now until the end of the year at Reyum Gallery, Street
178, No 47.