One of Cambodia’s most famous performing artists, who was a theater star in the late 1960s and helped revive the country’s arts scene after the Khmer Rouge regime, died Friday in Phnom Penh.
Pich Tum Kravel, who became famous in the 1960s for interpreting the role of Tum in the play “Tum Tiev”—Cambodia’s version of “Romeo and Juliet”—passed away at his home in Tuol Sangke district. The artist, who would have celebrated his 72nd birthday on June 2, held the title of adviser to the Ministry of Culture with the rank of minister.
“A truly great loss for the country,” said Long Ponnasirivath, a director-general at the Culture Ministry, who attended Sunday morning’s funeral ceremonies at Mr. Kravel’s home.
“We are really sad to see disappear such an important human resource.”
Afflicted by a heart condition for several years, Mr. Kravel had been hospitalized for about three months, his brother Chhorn Sam Ath said Sunday. “Seeing his condition deteriorate last week, we decided to take him home and had him listen to Buddhist chanting,” he said. “About three or four hours later, he passed away.”
Born in Kandal province under the name of Chhorn Tort—he would adopt the name of Pich Tum Kravel after the Khmer Rouge regime—Mr. Kravel was among the theater students eager to experiment in the 1960s. Taking “Tum Teav,” the story of a couple whose love leads to their death, he decided to turn the popular tale into an innovative modern production of the traditional musical-theater form known as yike.
Performed in Cambodia and in several Asian countries, the play was a tremendous success. Cambodian choreographer Sophiline Cheam Shapiro recalls seeing it as a child in the early 1970s. “This was the first modern yike,” she said Sunday. “He was a visionary.”
Having survived the Khmer Rouge, Mr. Kravel helped revive performing arts by setting up companies and organizing performances through the Culture Ministry in the 1980s. He also wrote and staged “The Development of the Nation of Kampuchea” in 1983.
“After the Khmer Rouge, this was the biggest show in Cambodia,” featuring more than 400 artists, said Proeung Chhieng, a choreographer and adviser to the Ministry of Culture. It was performed more than 70 times.
The death of so many of his artist friends under Pol Pot led Mr. Kravel to research and publish information on as many Khmer traditional art forms as he could.
“When he returned to Phnom Penh in the 1980s, he found at the palace a few colored puppets,” said Suon Bun Rith, a cultural consultant who later worked with him on Unesco projects in Phnom Penh. Since Cambodian shadow puppets are usually in dark leather, Mr. Kravel was puzzled.
“He tracked this down until about 2000 or 2001 when he had compiled enough evidence to say that Cambodians did have colored puppets,” Mr. Bun Rith said. Mr. Kravel ultimately discovered that the colored puppets, or “sbaek por,” first appeared in the 19th century for daytime performances.
Moreover, Mr. Kravel was always ready to pass on what he had discovered through his research, said Princess Norodom Bopha Devi, who oversaw his work at the ministry in the 1990s, when she was minister of culture. “We would go to him for advice and his opinion on ancient [arts] tradition,” she said.
In recent years, Mr. Kravel wrote a series of 21 books on Cambodia’s traditional art forms. Kaing Rithisal, executive director of Amrita Performing Arts, said these would be a lasting legacy.
“These books…became very important reference for us to get to know what are in Khmer performing arts,” he said. “In the future, whenever people want to continue researching and writing about this field, his books will continue to be essential reference.”
Yet Mr. Kravel did not believe that performing arts should be limited to staging traditional works, said Phloeun Prim, director of Cambodian Living Arts.
“He would say, ‘Artists express. They are a mirror of society and therefore…must be connected to the reality of the moment,’” Mr. Prim said.
Mr. Kravel was not just a talented actor and scholar, he was also an unfailingly friendly and encouraging mentor to younger artists, and was always willing to help bring new projects to fruition.
“I really liked him and respected him because of his work, because of his love for Khmer culture and because of his encouragement for the younger generation,” said Chea Sopheap, deputy director of the Bophana Audiovisual Resource Center.
“We have a big loss,” he said. “Losing him is a big loss.”