from the Cambodia Daily, March 26-27, 2005
A Book and Exhibition Document the Science of Cambodian
by Michelle Vachon
With a modest
goal and information readily available, the project should
have presented no difficulty.
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
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
dividing styles into categories posed huge problems, said
Preap Chanmara, who became a senior researcher at Reyum
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
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.
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
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.
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.