The idea was simple enough, said Ly Daravuth. To ensure the traditional art of painting the scenes and characters of the Reamker would not disappear in Cambodia, the hundreds of characters from the epic tale could be compiled in a dictionary, each with its own illustration and description.
Painstaking work, maybe, but also a logical way to proceed, thought Ly Daravuth and Ingrid Muan, directors of the Reyum Institute of Arts and Culture.
“We found out this was not possible,” said Ly Daravuth. Not only do some characters look nearly identical-short of a few details-but also there is no set way in Cambodia to illustrate the Reamker, which is the Cambodian version of the epic Indian tale Ramayana, Muan said.
It has taken three years of research, sometimes heated discussions and plans made and unmade to produce the book that was launched on Thursday at the institute’s gallery.
On the same night, the institute opened an exhibition of Reamker paintings-some of which were reproduced in the book-done by the Cambodian painter Chet Chan. They include one painting of the Kailas Palace, or heavenly palace, an intricate blue and gold work on canvas measuring about 3.5 by 2.5 meters.
It was commissioned for a private collection and will only remain at the gallery until Monday. Both the book and the exhibition are sponsored by the US-based Kasumisou Foundation.
The difficulties Daravuth and Muan met in the project are reflected in the title of the book-The Reamker, Painted by Chet Chan. As they explain in the book’s introduction, it is one master painter’s version of the characters.
The Reamker has always been a cornerstone of Cambodian culture, and pagodas have traditionally commissioned artists to paint the epic on their walls, Ly Daravuth said.
Each master painter would draw the story as he had learned it, coloring the illustrations with his own style, which he then passed on to his apprentices, Muan said. As a result, each village and each pagoda had their own versions, she said.
The Reamker tells the story of Rama who, with the help of his brother and the monkey Hanuman, tries to rescue his wife Sita from a 10-head and 20-arm demon.
In the Reamker, Rama becomes Preah Ream and his wife Neang Seda. The 12 years it takes him to free her from the island of Langka are filled with battles between supporters of the demon and of Preah Ream.
Once reunited, Preah Ream orders his wife killed, doubting her love for him. His brother decides to let her escape to the forest, where she gives birth and raises her son. Years later, the son is reunited with Preah Ream-his father-who attempts to win back Neang Seda’s heart and eventually succeeds.
Throughout the story, gods and goddesses come in aid of people, and magic is ever present. For instance, Hanuman can shift shape and, at one point, makes himself huge so that his tail can form a bridge for Preah Ream’s soldiers to reach the island of Langka. The god Preah En changes himself into a water buffalo and leads Neang Seda to a safe haven when she is left to fend for herself in the forest.
“This is no ordinary tale,” said Ang Choulean, an anthropologist and the director of the Department of Culture for the Apsara Authority. “In traditional Cambodia, characters [of the Reamker] were considered deities.”
In times of drought, he said, “it was the custom to play certain scenes from the Reamker to bring rain.” Performances of the shadow puppet theater and the masked male dance “lakhaon khaol” feature episodes from the Reamker, Ang Choulean said.
Gold statues of the characters from the 6th century were found at Angkor Borei in Takeo province, and scenes from the epic are carved on the walls of Angkor Wat and Banteay Srei, he said. In the 17th century, the tale took on Buddhist connotations in Cambodia, as shown in a 16th century written version of the Reamker, Ang Choulean said.
“There are hundreds of variations of both the story and the [illustration] style,” in Cambodia, he said. Since palm-leaf books deteriorated with use, monks would recopy the Reamker from one book to the next, adding or modifying portions in the process.
Master painters would hear the story and paint from memory, based on never-written rules learned from their own masters, Muan said. “Hanuman’s fur has to be white. But it could be done in light blue or grey-as long as it looked white from a distance. It was up to the painter.”
In addition, she said, “Some of the 200 characters are interchangeable, especially in the case of women.”
A few are unique, such as the fortune-teller Pipaet, shown with a divining slate. Others may differ in their headdress or color. Only a fish tail differentiates Mechanub from his father Hanuman-his mother was Sovann Macha, the queen of the fish.
In the West, each character in a story would look a specific way, said Ly Daravuth. In paintings of the Reamker, the context of the story tells who is such and such a character, he said.
The lack of uniformity in painting styles and the fact that characters could be transposed ruled out the concept of a dictionary, said Ly Daravuth.
“How can you articulate a traditional system in a westernized way of thinking? How can you categorize things that are multidimensional?” This made the need for a book on Reamker artwork more pressing since the craft could disappear with the few remaining masters if no written records were produced, he said.
During their research, Ly Daravuth and Muan studies three old painted versions of the Reamker. The first one, painted in the 1860s, is at Wat Bo in Siem Reap province. The second one is at Wat Kompong Tralach in Kompong Chhnang province and is at least 100 years old.
But they decided to use the painting style of the third one-the Reamker on the murals of the Royal Palace in Phnom Penh-and that version of the story, for their book. The painting was done in 1903 and the story written that same year, in conjunction with the making of the murals, by Minister of the Palace Thiounn.
Chet Chan, who teaches at the Royal University of Fine Arts, had studied Cambodian traditional art at the School of Fine Arts in Phnom Penh in the early 1960s.
“I had friends who worked as carpenters at the Royal Palace, and I would go there very often to study the murals. I knew the chronology of the story [on those murals].” In the 1980s, he worked on the restoration of the murals, a project funded by Poland in the mid-1980s.
Ly Daravuth and Muan asked him to paint the Reamker as he saw fit, with a description of how he believes each character should be illustrated. Chet Chan painted more than 70 characters that, along with scenes from the story, are on exhibit at the institute’s gallery.
The hard-cover, color book is written in Khmer and in English and includes an edited version of Thiounn’s Reamker story, more than 60 color characters with their descriptions, and a section that documents Chet Chan’s technique, step by step.
As featured in the technique section, painting the Reamker is a matter of minute details and infinite patience. To paint a scene on silk, Chet Chan uses acrylic paint and thin gold sheets.
He starts with a sketch on paper and transfers it on the silk surface. Next, he covers the sketch with a coat of white, and paints a first series of details in yellow. Using resin from the lovea tree, a type of fig tree, he carefully attaches a layer of gold leaf to the yellow portions of the drawing. Then starts the endless work of painting detail after detail, some so minuscule that they will only be visible up close. Every surface of headgear, clothes and jewelry is covered with fine ornamentation. The muted tones of gold, orange, green, yellow and blue combine to create subdued figures usually shown in movement.
“It’s very difficult to learn,” said Chet Chan. One has to know the technique as well as the characteristics of each character, he said.
Today’s art students have little interest in traditional art because there is little market for it, said Chet Chan. Pagodas no longer commission Reamker murals, said Ly Daravuth. With television replacing story time at night, few Cambodians know the epic from beginning to the end anymore, said Ang Choulean.
Ly Daravuth and Muan said they hope the book will stir interest in traditional painting and help keep the Reamker art alive. The exhibition will run through November.
Two conferences will be held at the gallery during the exhibition. On Sept 11 at 5:30 pm, Son Soubert, in Khmer and English, will talk about the meaning of the Ramayana in Southeast Asia. And on Sept 17 at 5:30 pm, Ang Choulean will discuss the Reamker in daily life in Cambodia in Khmer, French and English.
The institute’s gallery, located at 47 Street 178, is open daily from 7:30 am to 6 pm. The book is available at the gallery.