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A Note on Lakhaon Kaol - Cambodia's Classical Male Masked Dance

By: Professor Pich Tum Kravel Posted: April-24-2010 in
Professor Pich Tum Kravel

Lakhaon Kaol is one of Cambodia's oldest classical dance forms. Stone inscriptions from the tenth century reveal the form was originally called Phea Ny - derived from Sanskrit and meaning to tell or recite a story. Phea Ny was performed exclusively by male dancers and musicians and shares this characteristic, among others, with the present-day Lakhaon Kaol. All performers are masked except for those taking female roles. When performing Lakhaon Kaol, dancers interact with off-stage singers or narrators - usually teachers or choreograhers of the Lakhaon Kaol troupe - who deliver the narrative to the audience, and as such, 'direct' the action.

Performances of Lakhaon Kaol are accompanied by the Pin Paet ensemble, the traditional Cambodian classical orchestra of roneat (xylophone), kong (gongs), sralai (reed instrument), sampho (double-sided drum) and skor thom (large twin drums). Lakhaon Kaol was traditionally performed around the time of Khmer New Year to purge the community of bad omens and as an entreaty to the gods to bring villagers happiness and fertility. When droughts occurred, it was performed by farmers as a plea for rain.

Cambodians regard Lakhaon Kaol as a sacred art form with overtones of a religious ritual. Yet, in spite of its sacred nature, Lakhaon Kaol also serves as entertainment at special occasions within families, at monasteries and to welcome visitors to a village. It has only one narrative: the story of Reamker, the Cambodian version of the Hindu Ramayana epic which, according to the stone inscription of Veal Kantel, in Stung Treng province, came to Cambodia in the sixth century.

The Reamker reinterprets the Hindu epic in a Cambodian context, using the topography, history and traditions of the nation. It rapidly became one of the most important stories in Cambodian literature and today continues to play a vital role that extends to its inclusion in the country's educatiional curriculum. The story serves both Hinduism (Mahayana) and Buddhism (Theravada): Cambodians regard Preah Ream (Rama) not only as the reincarnation of Vishnu but also as a Boddhisatta.

Weyreap's Battle charts the struggle between good, represented by Preah Ream, Preah Lak (Laksmana) and the Monkey Army, and evil, embodied by Krong Reap (Ravana) and the Army of Giants, Eventually good prevails in the form of the hero, Preah Ream.

In today's Cambodia, performances of Lakhaon Kaol play an important role in social and moral education. By communicating ideals of wisdom, patience, justice and understanding, the dance form contributes to the nation's ongoing development.

The performance begins with a traditional Twai Kru in which the artists bless their deceased masters, requesting permission to perform and to sanctify the stage for a successful performance. The dancers then claim their masks, 'owning' the character that they will perform.

After being defeated in a series of battles, Krong Reap (Ravana), King of Langka, orders his servants to invite his brother Weyreap and the Army of Giants to help him fight Preah Ream (Rama). Weyreap, King of Badal City (the city under the sea), agrees with Krong Reap's plan.

Preah Ream is at the king's encampment and thinking of his wife Seda. He has a dream that he is being pulled into the earth and cries for help. He summons his brother, Preah Lak, and his royal servants for a meeting, and requests that Pipaet, the fortune-teller, interpret the dream. Pipaet predicts that Preah Ream is in grave danger and must be protected. Only with the appearance of the Sirius star will he be free of danger. Hanuman, concerned for his lord's well-being, transforms himself into a giant monkey and places Preah Ream in his mouth for protection.

Weyreap arrives at Preah Ream's encampment, where he finds the Monkey Army guarding the camp. He transforms himself into an old monkey, enters the camp and learns of the fortune-teller's prediction from one of the monkey soldiers, by enticing him with some fruit. Weyreap blows a bright glass sphere into the air, advancing the appearance of the Sirius star, and by doing so, tricks the Monkey Army into relaxing its guard. Preah Ream's exhausted troops are greatly relieved at the appearance of the Sirius star and immediately go to sleep. Weyreap puts them into a deeper sleep by casting a magic spell and orders his men to take Pipaet and Preah Lak off to be punished. He then captures Preah Ream and flees with him to Badal City.

After the magic spell wears off, Preah Ream's servants awake to find that their master has been abducted. Consulting his magic sword, Sugrib discovers that Weyreap has taken Preah Ream to Badal City. Sugrib orders Hanuman and his Monkey Army to go and liberate Preah Ream, while Angkut and Jumphupean are sent to rescue Pipaet and Preah Lak.

In the undersea city of Badal, Machanub, son of the Mermaid Sovann Macha and Hanuman, and godson of
Weyreap, guards Preah Ream. Hanuman arrives in Badal and defeats the sea creatures. A battle ensues between Hanuman and Machanub; however, neither is able to defeat the other. Astounded by their equal show of strength, they start to question each other's backgrounds and discover that they are indeed father and son. Distressed, Machanub abandons the battlefield, leaving his father alone.

Hanuman sees the distraught female giant Dara Kourn, Weyreap's sister, crying as she walks with a clay pot. Hanuman questions her and discovers that Weyreap plans to kill both her and Preah Ream in a vat of boiling water. He vows to help if she can guide him to where Preah Ream is held captive. Dara Kourn tells him he will not be able to get in because everyone who enters is weighed as a means of identification. Hanuman transforms himself into a small insect and attaches himself to Dara Kourn, who then enters the prison. She is ordered to step on the scale, which immediately breaks. The giants think she is trying to deceive them and threaten to kill her. Hanuman jumps onto the scale and Dara Kourn points out the large insect. The giants assume this is the reason her weight was miscalculated, and she is released.

Hanuman flies back onto Dara Kourn and she takes him to Preah Ream, at which point he transforms himself back into the monkey worrior. He attacks the Army of Giants, throwing them into the cauldron of boiling water. Furious, Weyreap joins in the battle and is killed by Hanuman. Dara Kourn is crowned as the new leader of Badal City and the liberated Preah Ream marches back to his encampment, accompanied by his Monkey Army.

Source: The Angkorian Society

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