27.09.2013 - Samreth Sodh

Lakhon Bassac (Bassac Opera) – An Endangered Art

@UNESCO – The artist Mr. Om Sameth with his medal of honor

Many forms of outstanding art performances have been developed and have extended their popularity throughout Cambodia—a kingdom rich in tangible and intangible cultural heritage. However, a particular art form, the Cambodian Theatre, also known as Lakhon, is a well-known and one of the most popular forms of the so-called dance drama.

Lakhon Bassac or Bassac Opera is known as a traditional folk theatre in Cambodia. Lakhon Bassac is identified by its comic and exaggerated gestures portraying specific scene of old Khmer literature especially the battle between good and evil spirits. It is a lively and entertaining form of Khmer theatre with music, dance and melodrama, and it is performed with lavish costumes. Each dramatic style of Lakhon Bassac was almost destroyed during the Khmer Rouge era. Fortunately, the art form has survived although many of the performers were killed.

Om Sameth, a 70-year-old master of Cambodia traditional Lakhon Bassac, has been nominated in 2013 by the Ministry of Culture and Fine Arts as a Living Human Treasure for his outstanding performances and great efforts in sharing his knowledge with the younger generation. “It is my honor to be nominated as a Living Human Treasure at my age,” said Sameth.

Sameth was born in 1943 in Phnom Penh. At the age of 6, he started to live and study at Wat Preah Put (Buddha Pagoda). Later, around 7 or 8 years old, he dropped his study and left the pagoda to join a Bassac dance troupe called Phreah Mneag Yen Tart near Si Lep Market, Phnom Penh. Starting to learn how to perform Lakhon Bassac at a very young age, Sameth faced with some difficulties. “I was young and I needed to learn with various instructors and dance troupes. And I was not skillful,” said Sameth. His love for the art and his wish to stay and continue to learn Lakhon Bassac made him work hard to please the instructors and members of the troupe by doing small chores, cooking rice and fetching water. Sameth said, “I never quit performing Lakhon Bassac to do any job. I just wanted to concentrate on it.” With passion and determination, Sameth fought obstacles and got promoted from a minor actor to the main actor of the dance troupe.

Later in life, Sameth started his career with the Ministry of Culture and Fine Arts where he started to recruit young people and gather Lakhon Bassac stage equipment to form a dance troupe. Around 50 to 60 young boys and girls were taught the concepts and techniques of Lakhon Bassac. They studied and practiced the art until they became professional performers.

With almost a life-time experience with Lakhon Bassac, Sameth said, “I am trying to transfer my own experiences of Lakhon Bassac to the younger generation. I want to let them see the development of various kinds of Lakhon Bassac. And I want younger generation of Cambodia to understand and acknowledge the treasure of Khmer culture.”

Nowadays this art form is facing danger of extinction. Sameth said “To my own assumption, I think that young people today do not love Lakhon Bassac like those at my time.” In the past, there were performances every single night, but since there are new forms of entertainment such as TV and Internet, Lakhon Bassac performers need to keep waiting for the call to perform – once or twice per year. Therefore, there is not much incentive for the younger generation to go to school to learn Lakhon Bassac as it is difficult to survive on the art itself. Besides this, incoming foreign popular culture also play a big part in influencing the Cambodian younger generation mindset today. Sameth said “We should not let other culture influence our own culture. If we think that their cultures are good, we also need to pay attention and maintain our own culture too.  We just talk but we do not do.”

“Lakhon Bassac is the root of our own tradition cultural heritage. Lakhon Bassac is priceless. I am old now and I cannot perform anymore. I just want to remind and suggest to Cambodian government and younger generations not to forget Lakhon Bassac. We should respect, give values and preserve it. We should take action now,” said Sameth. 

<- Back to: UNESCO Office in Phnom Penh
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