"Woodland Spirits"

"Oun Sopheaktra" and "Srey Leak" were sitting on the floor starting to apply their make-up when I arrived. Placing my bag on the linoleum floor, I reconfirmed with my hosts that the intrusion of my photographic request would not affect their normal routines. The arrangements to photograph the Apsara had taken place over several days.

©Kieron Nelson "Vanishing Cultures Photography" All rights reserved ©Kieron Nelson "Vanishing Cultures Photography" All rights reserved
                    "Miss Srey Leak"                                                                   "Miss Oun Sopheaktra"

Apsara (also spelled Apsarasa), is a female spirit of the clouds and waters, in Hindu and Buddhist mythology. English translations of the word "Apsara" include "nymph," "celestial nymph," and "celestial maiden." Khmer classical dancers use stylized movements and gestures to convey meaning and tell a story. These gestures are often vague and abstract, while some may be easily understood. The Apsara, a woodland spirit, is played by a woman, sewn into tight-fitting traditional dress, whose graceful, sinuous gestures are codified to narrate classical myths or religious stories.

©Kieron Nelson "Vanishing Cultures Photography" All rights reserved
                                                                 Girls prepare in front of floor length mirror

The transition from teenage girls to "Celestial Maidens" lasted for over two hours, as make-up was applied and the girls dressed in their traditional costumes. The dressing of the girls was assisted by Miss Oun`s older sister who arrived on the back of a motor bike carrying a large full-length mirror. The dressing of the Apsara is an art unto itself, as various parts of the costume are sewn in place to aid in a tight fit. The exquisite silk skirt worn by the performing Apsara dancer is called a 'Charabob'; traditionally, white is reserved for the leading dancer, while the remaining subordinate dancers conventionally wear red, light green, and blue skirts. Charabobs are an exquisite silk and/or cotton blended material, which display elaborate geometric patterns and designs. Often, these skirts are worn in a front-pleated fashion, a pleated fringe in the front, and occasionally the left side of the skirt is also pleated.

©Kieron Nelson "Vanishing Cultures Photography" All rights reserved ©Kieron Nelson "Vanishing Cultures Photography" All rights reserved
                                                        It is wrapped around the body in a sarong-like fashion
©Kieron Nelson "Vanishing Cultures Photography" All rights reserved
                                     Various pieces of the costume have to be sewn onto the dancers for a tight fit.

The main goal of my short visit to Siem Reap was to seek out and photograph the Apsara. As the Vietnam War came to an end, genocide swept through Cambodia. Intellectuals and artists were especially persecuted during the 1975 to 1979 murderous rampage, performers and teachers of the ancient dances included. When the horror finally ended, those seeking to revive the art form trekked to neighboring Thailand and Vietnam, in order to interview those familiar with the dance rituals, so that tradition might endure. The damage, however, had been done, and many meanings and movements of Cambodian dance were lost.

©Kieron Nelson "Vanishing Cultures Photography" All rights reserved ©Kieron Nelson "Vanishing Cultures Photography" All rights reserved
             Ankle jewelry worn by the Apsara dancer, the first being kong tong chhuk, the second kong ngor (or kong kravel)
©Kieron Nelson "Vanishing Cultures Photography" All rights reserved ©Kieron Nelson "Vanishing Cultures Photography" All rights reserved
                  Decorative collar (Sarong Kor)                                                                    Gold or brass belt

The shirt worn in the Apsara dance differs from that of other dances, being form-fitting; the cloth is usually a white or skin coloured without any beads, jewelry or distracting features. This shirt is worn by each type of Apsara dancer ( Leading and Subordinate). The white shirt suggests nakedness, as would be the case with an actual woodland spirit.

©Kieron Nelson "Vanishing Cultures Photography" All rights reserved ©Kieron Nelson "Vanishing Cultures Photography" All rights reserved

        Kra Ya or Tum Hou (ear rings)                                                                                               Crown (Mekot)

The Cambodian Apsara crown is more sophisticated than that of many other dances, designed to simulate ancient bas-relief depictions of Angkor Wat and other Khmer temples. The leading Apsara crown commonly has five points or tips, with two rows of spherical decorations like the Apsara pictured at Angkor Wat. Crowns worn by the subordinate dancers commonly have three points and only one row of sphere decoration. These crowns often include garlands of artificial hair with ornate adornments. The five-points crowns are frequently absent in modern dance routines.

©Kieron Nelson "Vanishing Cultures Photography" All rights reserved ©Kieron Nelson "Vanishing Cultures Photography" All rights reserved
                Contemplation                                                                                         "Woodland Spirit"

 "Apsara" is a word of Sanskrit origin and means "woodland spirit" or "nymph". Nymphs are generally regarded as divine spirits who animate nature, and are usually depicted as beautiful young maidens who love to dance.  They are believed to dwell in mountains and groves, by springs and rivers, and also in trees and in valleys.

 

©Kieron Nelson "Vanishing Cultures Photography" All rights reserved ©Kieron Nelson "Vanishing Cultures Photography" All rights reserved
                         Placing Plumerias                                                                                         Artificial Hair

Dancers are traditionally adorned with fragrant flowers, although sometimes fresh flowers are substituted with faux flowers. A floral tassel is attached to the left side of the crown. Over time, the lengthy, beautiful hair of the Apsara dancer has been replaced by artificial hair.

©Kieron Nelson "Vanishing Cultures Photography" All rights reserved
                     "Miss Srey Leak" and "Miss Oun Sopheaktra" have completed their transition to "Celestial Maidens"
©Kieron Nelson "Vanishing Cultures Photography" All rights reserved ©Kieron Nelson "Vanishing Cultures Photography" All rights reserved
   

©Kieron Nelson "Vanishing Cultures Photography" All rights reserved ©Kieron Nelson "Vanishing Cultures Photography" All rights reserved

                           Apsara (one foot on ground)                                                                    Devatas ( both feet on ground)

Distinct in its ornate costuming, taut posture, arched back and feet, fingers flexed backwards, codified facial expressions,  and slow, close, deliberate but flowing movements, Classical dance is uniquely Khmer. Years of practice, and daily exercise to stretch and flex the body are needed to learn the complicated repertoire of movements and gestures that make Apsara dance a language all its` own. Miss Srey Leak (historical meaning “Perfect Girl”), Miss Oun Sopheaktra ("Oun" in Cambodian, means younger brother or sister), and "Sopheaktra", (historically means "gentle face") began their journey starting between the ages of nine and ten.

UNESCO declared the dance a "Masterpiece of Oral and Intangible Culture", and laid plans for a regeneration of the art form. 

                              

 


Comments

2.Vanishing Cultures Photography
Thank you so much Judith for your kind comments.
1.Judith Homa(non-registered)
Thankyou for your informative and vibrant photographs and text.. Hopefully this is not one of the vanishing cultural expressions but one of the surviving and thriving cultural expressions of planet earth. I am so grateful
Kind regards,
Judith Homa
ecopsycholologist
No comments posted.
Loading...