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Photo: Bangkok Post
Masked dance tradition rises from near extinction in Cambodia.

Dictators try their hardest to wipe out whole cultures and groups of people. They can do horrific damage, but they can never fully succeed in their evil intentions. From whatever is left, new shoots will grow. The Khmer Rouge and the tyrant Pol Pot (1963 to 1981), for example, thought they could crush traditional arts in Cambodia, but today those arts are rebounding. In addition to resurrecting Cambodian ballet, devotees are also bringing back masked dance.

Check out this story by Chantha Lach, Panu Wongcha-um at Reuters.

“Cambodia’s centuries-old tradition of masked dance was nearly wiped out by the Khmer Rouge’s ‘Killing Fields’ regime, but a handful of artists managed to keep it alive and are now working to pass it along to a new generation.

“Sun Rithy’s father and grandfather were both performers of the Lakhon Khol masked dance, but the ultra-Maoist Khmer Rouge — who scorned most art as decadent — banned its study when he was a child in the 1970s.

“Now 48, Sun Rithy leads one of the last Lakhon Khol troupes in Cambodia, made up of about 20 performers and students aged six to 15. …

“Lakhon Khol was recently listed by UNESCO, the United Nations’ cultural agency, as an intangible cultural heritage, along with neighboring Thailand’s version of the dance, known as Khon. …

“ ‘In the Khmer Rouge, I was young and they didn’t teach people dance. Lakhon Khol was destroyed,’ said Sun Rithy, who started to learn the dance when he was 14, after the Khmer Rouge were ousted from power.

“Ahead of a recent rehearsal, students stretched their legs and hands at the troupe’s a newly built theater at Wat Svay Andet, a Buddhist temple outside the capital, Phnom Penh. …

“Cambodian Minister of Culture and Fine Arts, Phoeurng Sackona, said that the dance needed immediate preservation and urged all people to get involved.

“ ‘Elderly performers are trying to preserve the dance at this Wat Svay Andet,’ Phoeurng Sackona told Reuters. ‘But it is up to young people whether they agree or not to receive knowledge from the elders.’

“Thailand’s version of the dance has fared better than its neighbor’s, but practitioners still depend on recruiting a new generation of performers. Thailand’s Khon tradition, originally centered on the royal court, is now taught by many schools and universities.

“Mom Luang Pongsawad Sukhasvasti, 67, has followed his father’s footstep in making Khon masks since he was 10 and still hand-fashions the masks from his home studio in Ayutthaya province, north of Bangkok.

“Each mask takes a month to produce, from molding the plaster to drawing the intricate details. Pongsawad said the UNESCO listing could boost awareness.

“ ‘Teachers now must do more than teaching the dance,’ he said. ‘They need to help students understand the roots as well to preserve it.’ ” More here.

This effort reminds me of the book Farenheit 451, which takes its name from the temperature at which book paper burns. Did you see the movie, with Julie Christie playing two different women? In the Ray Bradbury story, a future civilization bans books, but in a secret camp of outlaws, each individual takes on a book to memorize to keep the treasures of literature alive. They walk around most of the day reciting David Copperfield or whatever. The experience of Cambodia suggests the 1954 science fiction story was not so far-fetched.

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