from The Bangkok Post, November 22, 2002

The Reamker

Painted by Chet Chan. Bilingual text in Khmer and English, hardcover, 156 pages, illustrated with more than 150 colour illustrations. Published 2002, Reyum Publishing. Available at Paragon Book Gallery at The Promenade and Asia Books.

Over the centuries, the Indian epic the Ramayana spread throughout Southeast Asia and was transformed into many local versions and variations. In a recently published book entitled The Reamker, a Cambodian version of the Ramayana is presented which not only offers a readily accessible synopsis of the many characters and scenes of the story, but also considers the way in which main characters of the epic have been rendered in traditional painted representations.

The book is a collaboration between the Reyum Institute of Arts and Culture (Phnom Penh, Cambodia) and Chet Chan, a painter trained at the School of Fine Arts in Phnom Penh during the early 1960s. Funding for the research for the book was provided by the Kasumisou Foundation.

The bilingual book opens with an edited version of the story of the Reamker, written by Thiounn, the Minister of the Royal Palace in Phnom Penh at the turn of the century. Thiounn's text condenses the often complex story into brief verses which follow the large painted Reamker mural still visible on the Royal Palace walls in Phnom Penh today. In the Reyum publication, this textual version of the Reamker is followed by more than 60 illustrations of individual characters as painted by Chet Chan. Through this catalogue of representations, as well as by an accompanying illustrated essay, the book raises the issue of how the many characters of the story have traditionally been represented in order to distinguish each character from the other by characteristic skin colours, headdresses, or other physical attributes.

By studying this catalogue, the perceptive reader will be able to identify individual characters of the Reamker as well as the stories in which they are represented. The book ends with a final photo essay, detailing the process through which Chet Chan makes one of his tempera and gold-leaf paintings on silk. Again, the didactic intent of the publication is clear: by studying the pictures, the reader can learn the process of making a traditional Cambodian painting.

Richly illustrated in full colour, The Reamker will please a wide range of readers. Young children will be entranced by the images of monkeys and demons, visitors to the region will be happy to learn the story and identify some of the characters of the Reamker, while regional scholars will be eager to study one of the first recent treatments of the Cambodian version of the Ramayana. –RT