How Hanuman Fell In Love and other stories.
August 3, 2006 10:05 AM   Subscribe

Robam Apsara: The dance of celestial nymphs, classical Khmer dance is the single greatest link between the ancient Angkor civilization and contemporary times. Reputed to follow the ancient percepts laid down in the Natya Sastra, Khmer dance is sensual but spiritual, time-less and yet, so very reconstructivist (all YouTube videos). It is such a delight to watch that a single performance will keep you enthralled for months. Extremely saddening, then, when you realize that it survived only by the barest of history's strands. more inside
posted by the cydonian (10 comments total) 10 users marked this as a favorite
Among other more secular narratives, Apsara dance takes particular delight in narrating stories from the Reamkher. The Reamkher, or Rama Kirti in Sanskrit-isque middle-Khmer, is that unique Cambodian re-telling of one of Hinduism's oldest epics, the Ramayana (a quick pictorial summary here).

The reconstructivist take comes with the character Hanuman, that monkey-god who, after finding duty and devotion in the service of Lord Rama, leapt across the seas, battled demons, built bridges, and brought mountains home. What Valmiki didn't know was that Hanuman also once fell in love with a mermaid princess, Souvanna Machcha, literally, the 'golden fish', with whom he first fought, but later attempted to woo.
posted by the cydonian at 10:06 AM on August 3, 2006

(Post-post notes):
a) Tried to collate links that tell a story, without being too preachy.
b) Wished I could find a video of the Souvanna Macha dance.
c) If you really would like to stick to just one link, I'd recommend the Amitav Ghosh essay.
d) First post, be gentle if I've broken some nettiquette. :-)
posted by the cydonian at 10:10 AM on August 3, 2006 [1 favorite]

nice collection. A note on the similarly to thai dancing...they are similar. HA. no, greta stuff. the Court Dancers were almost all killed by The KR. The devastation to Cambodian history is vast, i'd say the most in 1000 years. But a few dancers survived and thus taught others. HM Sihanouk can be thanked for part of that. What is really awesome is the "court tone" or the difference between speaking Khmer in everyday life and the when it is spoken at court. the tone and modulation are gentle almost a clear whisper but crisp and this was done by all. Even Pol Pot used deferential speech and gestures when he met Sihanouk in the bush (you can see it in the chinese film footage) and pol pots sister was a dancer at court....go figure.
posted by clavdivs at 10:23 AM on August 3, 2006

d) First post, be gentle if I've broken some nettiquette. :-)
a fine one and im cranky.
posted by clavdivs at 10:26 AM on August 3, 2006

Ooh, I was just introduced to the Natya Sastra by reading Richard Schechner's essay Rasaesthetics (pdf), in which he links its precepts to contemporary concepts of the 'enteric nervous system,' in order to develop a series of exercises for the american avant-garde theater (specifically his East Coast Artists group). Excellent post.
posted by jrb223 at 10:47 AM on August 3, 2006

Fascinating stuff! Fantastic post.
posted by Baby_Balrog at 11:43 AM on August 3, 2006

the cydonian, A marvellous post, a feast of dance, language, history, images and videos! It's charming in the way it tells a story. The dancing is exquisite, music wonderful. Definitely a favorite, made my day. Thank you.

Ever since you wrote that yummy response about chicken simmered in coconut I was wondering what kind of front page post you'd cook up. :)

I've always enjoyed the myth and metaphor of apsaras as muse. Another word in Sanskrit that is similar is dakini.

Beautiful hand gestures. Just one of the pages on the great site you linked to is a treasure of information. A little about the musical instruments used.

It's staggering to think about the damage under the domination of Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge.

I'm going to order a video of the court dancing and will repeatedly savor those videos you linked.

clavdivs, Fascinating about the court language.
posted by nickyskye at 12:00 PM on August 3, 2006

well done!
posted by vronsky at 3:00 PM on August 3, 2006

Thank you all for some great comments!

clavdivs: Oh, absolutely, the Thais and the Cambodians have this interesting cultural rivalry of sorts, that's both amusing (the town closest to the Angkor ruins is called 'Siem Reap', literally, 'Thailand defeated') and intense at times (there was some rioting in Phnom Penh a few years back because of some comments made by a Thai actress).

Legend has it that when the Thai kings ransacked the ancient city of Angkor, they carted off all the lead dancers to their capital, where, among other things, they were indoctrinated in the northern notions of modesty; you see, until the Thais came, the ancient Angkor woman didn't really care much about covering her chest. :-)

Oh, I should have found a way to interlace this as well, but things were so bad at one point, that there was exactly one seamstress who could stitch those elaborate dance-costumes. This is a lot more profound than it sounds, really; some of these costumes are so intricate, that they are stitched on after the dancer has worn them. As nickyskye said in her comment, staggering to imagine. :-)

jrb223: Great link on the Natya Sastra! Amazing read, and a brilliant point made on 'rasa'; never quite thought about it, but the essay's right, that's one of the factors distinguishing ballet from theater.

nickyskye: Let's just say I was also really looking forward to reading your comment as well. :-)

Great set of links once again; it's easy to say that most of the allure for Apsara dancing is because of those graceful hand gestures. In fact, so complete is it in itself, that it downright feels schizophrenic when you talk to a performer after a concert; it's almost as if she was a different person altogether onstage!
posted by the cydonian at 7:55 PM on August 3, 2006


Now you got me looking up Cambodian music. Odd find: 1960's Cambodian pop and rock. Really nice Cambodian psychedelic pop rock, Dengue Fever. And the good stuff, Light From Heaven, classical Cambodian Mahaori music dating from the Angkor Period.
posted by nickyskye at 1:00 AM on August 4, 2006

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