from the Cambodia Daily, March 26-27, 2005

A Book and Exhibition Document the Science of Cambodian Ornamentation

by Michelle Vachon



With a modest goal and information readily available, the project should have presented no difficulty.

Since there was no manual to teach ornamentation—the basis of all decorative work in Cambodia for more than a millennium—the Reyum Institute intended to produce small brochures illustrating the styles taught by master artists at the Royal University of Fine Arts.

Chan Vrtharin, a plastic arts student would start on the research and later write the text with archeology student Preap Chanmara.

Four years and countless discussions later, the brochures have turned into a 530-page book Titled "Kbach, a Study of Khmer Ornament," it will be launched on Thursday, at the opening of an exhibition at Reyum featuring some of the photos from the book
Written in English and in Khmer, the hardcover book printed on glossy paper, contains nearly 400 color photographs of ornamentation in silver work, architecture, historical monuments and even embroidery. It also includes about 1,200 illustrations showing the steps involved in drawing Cambodian decorative patterns.
Besides being a teaching tool, the book's concise text and numerous images make it easy for casual readers to understand those intricate styles and to appreciate the combination of talent and technical ability involved in the decorations that adorn buildings, furniture and even leather work in the country.

From the institute's inception in 1998, co-Directors Ly Daravuth and the late Ingrid Muan were concerned with the lack of teaching material in fine arts and archeology at the university, Ly Daravuth said.

"There was the knowledge of the teachers being transmitted to students, in the oral tradition. It was vibrant [in creative terms] but when a teacher left, his knowledge would disappear with him," he said.

This led Reyum to publish in 2002 the book "The Raemker," in which Chet Chan shows traditional techniques for painting scenes from the Raemker—the Cambodian version of the Indian epic Ramayana.

The other project Muan and Ly Daravuth had in mind was an exploration of decorative styles, whose examples appear on cavern temples built about 1,500 years ago in Kampot province and at Angkor 300 years later.

Chan Vitharin's first task was to get information on kbach, or ornaments, from the master teachers. Right away, the hurdles he faced multiplied. "There were as many opinions on the subject as there were masters," Ly Daravuth said.

The book had to combine the thoughts and techniques of all masters, without favoring one over the other, he said. Meetings held in the hope of getting masters to agree on some points met with little success.

This highlighted the project's major difficulty, Ly Daravuth said. "We were about to record a living aesthetic tradition—how could we do this without immobilizing it in a rigid frame? This was uncharted territory.

"[Ornamentation] is a living art If we did not do this manual, the oral tradition that keeps it alive may disappear. And if we did, we ran the risk of freezing this art into set rules." Reyum decided to produce the manual but stressed in the introduction that the ornament categories and designs were not "set in stone," Ly Daravuth said.

Still, dividing styles into categories posed huge problems, said Preap Chanmara, who became a senior researcher at Reyum after graduation.

The term kbach can refer to an ornament as well as to a style, he said. For example, "kbach phni tes" refers both to a particular shape of leaf and to a way of decorating inside a shape.

"Kbach Angkor" is a lotus pattern. However, a lotus can be drawn in a "kbach phni voa" pattern, whose designs closely resemble plants and flowers, or in a "kbach phni pleung" pattern based on a stylized tongue of flame.


Getting specifics was no simple task, Chan Vltharin said. Each master artisan teaches his own interpretation of each style, illustrating lessons with his own drawings on canvas, he said.

The authors resorted to differentiating between patterns and shapes, outlining basic characteristics of styles and adding examples of possible variations to try to "describe the system of kbach as a way of thinking form," as they write in the book's introduction.

Each of the four principal patterns has its own chapter with information on their designs and applications: "kbach Angkor" is often used on pagodas and government buildings; "kbach phni tes" for furniture, musical instruments and traditional dance costumes; "kbach phni voa" for lacquer objects and masks; and "kbach phni pleung" on buildings associated with ceremonies including coronations and religious rites.

Above: Ear ornaments end in flowers on a fish egg shape, on an apsara sculpture at the Angkor Wat temple at Angkor
Right: Battle banners are fringed in a "kbach phni pleung" flame pattern at the Silver Pagoda on the Royal Palace grounds



Hanuman's eyebrows, mustache and ear ornaments are painted in the "kbach phni pleung" style in a scene from the Reamker at the Silver Pagoda Opposite, top: A sculpture of mythical animals and "kbach Angkor" style leaves adorns a roof at Banteay Srei temple at Angkor Opposite, bottom: Leaves in the "kbach phni tes" style spiral like snail shells on a wrought iron door on the Royal Palace grounds

This first book on the subject concentrated on the basis of ornamentation. The next step will be to research the styles' evolution within fields such as wood and silver and to study "kbach" development through the centuries in different parts of the country, Chan Vltharin said.

The books' photos and illustrations were done by Chan Vltharin, now teaching photography at the university. The text was written by him and Preap Chanmar, and edited by Muan and Ly Daravuth.

The book was published through the support of the Albert Kunstadter Family Foundation, the Japan Foundation Asia Center, the Rockefeller Foundation and the Toyota Foundation.
The book and the exhibition are dedicated to Muan, who passed away in January.