The Teachers of Cambodia Living Arts in conversation with Sita Ljungholm Verma

Before the onslaught of the Khmer Rouge in the late 70s, Cambodia was the home of an abundant art scene, ranging from traditional performing arts to a vibrant contemporary rock scene. During the Khmer Rouge, most of the artists were killed, leaving only a handful of artist alive, which severely crippled Cambodia’s art scene and cultural heritage. Who would be there to carry on the legacy of the abundant culture that was Cambodia? In 1998 the Cambodian Masters Programme was created, initially supporting four master artists that miraculously survived the Khmer Rouge, helping them to carry on their legacy.

From this handful of skilled artists, a new generation of skilled Cambodian artists is taking form carrying on their cultural heritage and rebuilding the soul of the country.

Interview with some of the artistic directors and teachers at the Cambodian Living Arts:

SV: Where do the members of the Cambodian Living arts come from, what are their backgrounds?

In the Yike group (Cambodian opera and theatre), teachers come from provinces and they have graduated from the Royal University of Culture and Fine Arts. Moreover, 80% of the students come from the province and most of them have no mother or father. All of the dance teachers come from the province and have graduated from the Royal University of Culture and Fine Arts.

SV: How many people are working with the group?

In 2008, there were 2 teachers and 12 students, but now there are 2 teachers and 30 students.

In the dance group there are 4 teachers. There were only 25 students at the beginning of creating the class, later on, there were 64, now there are only 50 students since some of them wanted to pursue their study abroad and have their own career. Those who have stayed study and work with Cambodian Living Arts.

SV: How is the theatre/performance climate in Cambodia after the Khmer Rouge?

After Khmer Rough, there were only a few artist left and then they just have Royal University of Culture and Fine Arts where people could go and learn Khmer traditional arts after passing the entrance exam. It was very popular during 1980-1990 since people really tried to support and promote the traditional arts. But after 1992, our traditional arts form are decreasing its value day by day because the government do nothing to preserve the arts and take it for granted. These traditional art forms are getting less and less known by the young generation because of the influence of foreign culture, Video shows and TV.

SV: What is the teacher’s personal role in promoting the arts of Cambodia?

I contribute my time, I make sure the performances go well, I share my experience and provide training to anyone who is interested in this art form. I even spend my own money. We want to promote the arts to the young generation.

SV: What do you think are your biggest obstacles?

Lack of Human resource, we need talented people for this art form. We don’t have our own group of musicians either. We also do not have enough rehearsal time as a lot of the students also have to attend high school. We lack real artists who can carry on the legacy since most of our students need to have other jobs after graduation to be able to support their families. We need people to be able to stay and carry on their art after graduation. We would also like to have our own theatre with props set and costumes.

Another problem is that there is no art in the education programmes, the school is far away from people’s homes and most people, especially the leaders who are supposed to promote arts have no skills in arts at all. The biggest problem however is people’s mind-set, they think that there is no need to follow traditions, they think that it is out of date.

SV: What are your plans for the future?

We want to achieve new things! Reinforce the quality of the performance based on their (the students) talent, singing, beauty, moral, policy.

Actually, this is just my dream. I want to create a University of Culture and Fine arts that follow international curriculum. It should include arts hours, sport times, break time so that students can stay in the school for the whole day and don’t have to go home. The kids who live far away should be able to stay at the school if they need to.