Rare Reamker Recording Celebrated at Bophana Center

Nearly five decades ago, Ta Krut, one of the country’s most famous storytellers, traveled to a village in Kandal province to narrate the Reamker, Cambodia’s version of the Indian epic Ramayana.

Ta Krut told large portions of the tale in a 6-hour-45-minute performance recorded by French scholar Jacques Brunet. This 1968 recording, combined with some soundtracks of Ta Krut’s broadcasts on national radio in the 1960s, is today the only known recording of the entire Reamker. 

Storyteller Ta Krut is shown in 1968 during one of his lively accounts of the epic tale Reamker. (Jacques Brunet)
Storyteller Ta Krut is shown in 1968 during one of his lively accounts of the epic tale Reamker. (Jacques Brunet)

Restored and digitized by the Bophana Audiovisual Resource Center, the complete audio recording is about 10 hours long and was submitted by Cambodia for inclusion in the Unesco International Memory of the World Register two years ago. It was approved in May.

To mark Unesco’s World Day for Audiovisual Heritage this year, the Bophana Center is holding an event today to celebrate the Reamker tradition and Ta Krut’s recording.

One of the guests will be Ta Krut’s daughter Krut Morn, according to Chea Sopheap, the center’s deputy director. “His daughter would travel with him,” he said.

In the 1960s, storytellers would travel to towns and villages to narrate this epic, which is filled with human and mythical characters who clash in endless wars.

But today, Mr. Sopheap said, “The art of [Reamker] storytelling has disappeared.”

It is hard to pinpoint the reasons for the decline of the Reamker storytelling tradition, said Ang Choulean, an ethnologist at the Royal University of Fine Arts specializing in Cambodian traditions.

It could be due to the years of conflict that claimed the lives of many artists in the country, but the custom could also have simply outlived its usefulness in the age of television broadcasting and Internet, Mr. Choulean said.

References to the Ramayana can be seen on pre-Angkorian monuments of the sixth and seventh centuries, he said.

“There are two great Indian epics: the Ramayana and the Mahabharata,” Mr. Choulean said. “While one has faded away from popular culture, the Ramayana in its Cambodian version of the Reamker remains popular to this day.”

Although itinerant storytellers no longer roam the countryside retelling the Reamker, references to the epic still suffuse Cambodian arts and culture. Two types of theater stage episodes from the Reamker: Lakhaon Kaol, a form of masked dance performed by men, and Sbek Thom, shadow puppet theater.

The public event at the Bophana Center, which starts at 4 p.m. today, will feature a documentary on the Reamker, a discussion on the epic and a performance of arak, a rare traditional form of music.

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