From Angkor, January - March 2000

Casting Characters

Khmer Mask-making in the Workshop of An Sok

Walk down a small alley near the National Museum in Phnom Penh, push open a rusty gate, climb up two flights of increasingly precarious stairs. There in their third floor studio/aerie, you will find one of the few remaining lacquer and mask-making families in Cambodia today.

An Sok at work in his rooftop studio

Surrounded by slanted rooftops and spacious views of the city, the family patriarch An Sok is usually seen hard at work. Walking through the studio, the visitor slowly realises that the odd football-shaped cement forms lying on the ground are moulds for the faces of the characters of the Reamker, the Khmer version of the Ramayana. There is the monkey Hanuman, and elsewhere, a yeak or demon, their faces curiously turned inside out through the logic of mould-making.


Cement mask mold with partially finished mask

Represented frequently in Khmer dance and theatre, the Reamker tells the story of the epic battles which Preah Ream, with the help of the monkey army, wages in order to win back his wife, Neang Seda, from the demon king Krong Reap. Given the vast- and encyclopedic nature of a story in which ever more yeaks, monkeys, mythical animals and gods join the fray , to know the characters, their specific colours, and their particular ornaments is already a knowledge in, and of, itself. A well-trained mask maker not only knows these characters thoroughly but has also mastered time-honored techniques for making their representations.

For each desired mask, the basic shape of the head of the character is first sculpted in wet clay. A cement mould is then made of the front and back of the head, and strips of paper, soaked in glue, are pressed and painted into the mould form, building up the skin of the mask until there are at least ten layers of paper. Allowed to dry until damp, this basic mask form is then gently removed and left to harden before detailing is added.


Hanuman, the clever monkey represented
by a white monkey mask.
Photo: Darren Campbell

Although at first sight, the spectacular glitter of a Khmer theatrical performance can cause the viewer to blend all the individual characters into a single fantastically masked performer, in reality, each character in the dance or theatre has specific characteristics which are particularly highlighted by the masks they wear. Thus for example, Hanuman, the clever monkey, is represented by a white monkey mask with no head-dress; Sugrib, the monkey king, wears a red mask with a golden headdress; and Krong Reap, the demon king, is shown by a mask covered with gold leaf whose head-dress consists of ten faces. Alain characters such as these not only have distinguishing colours and head-dresses but also often have differing ornamental details on the surfaces of their masks.

These ornamental details, or kbach in Khmer, are cast out of lacquer resin. Collected from the Kreul tree in Kampong Thorn, a natural lacquer resin (mrek) is repeatedly heated and mixed with other resins before it can be used in mask-making. To form the ear leaves and filigree details found on the headbands and head-dresses of characters, hot lacquer is poured into delicate stone and cement moulds. The oldest of these moulds, still in use in An Sok's studio, bear the names of teachers who taught at the School of Cambodian Arts during the early part of the 20th century. Carved directly into soft stone, these molds require enormous skill in chiselling. Later kbach molds are made by carving the kbach in the much more pliable medium of wax, and cement moulds are then made from this wax positive. Hot lacquer cools quickly in all of these moulds, and the finished kbach is then peeled up and fixed on the mask in the appropriate place. In the final stage of this labour-intensive process, the mask surfaces are primed and painted, and gold leaf is applied over the sections of lacquer ornament. The days of painstaking hand work and attention to detail necessary to make these masks slip away when the characters come to life on stage in a performance of the Reamker.