Negotiating transitions: On the adaptation of community-based ritual theater in post-war Cambodia

SEAP Gatty Lecture Series : Negotiating transitions: On the adaptation of community-based ritual theater in post-war Cambodia by Stephanie Khoury, 09/11/2017, Kahin Center, Cornell University

Stéphanie Khoury’s work deals with the political, religious, social and artistic conditions of musical and theatrical expressions in postcolonial and postwar contexts. Her research is focused on ritual and secular performing arts in Cambodia as well as in diasporas, with particular attention to pinpeat music and the Khmer all-male drama, lkhon khol. In a rural setting, the annual ritual practice of the lkhon khol is associated with the local monastery of Svay Antet and represents a major social activity through which community ties are strengthened, social norms are reiterated, and the collective allegiance to protective political and religious forms of authority are reaffirmed. As a community-based ritual that was also linked to the royal court, it was interrupted during the years of civil war and the Khmer Rouge regime (1970-1979). From the 1980’s onward, the restoration of the theater was part of the restoration of the community itself. As the latter faces important changes, dealing both with its past and with current economic, political and religious contingencies, villagers have had to adapt their ritual practice to ensure its continued relevance for the community. Meanwhile, the practice and its practitioners are embedded in a broader cultural and political dynamic that culminates this year, with the request by the Cambodian government that UNESCO list the theater of this specific troupe as intangible cultural heritage. While this particular case provides detailed insights into the upholding of traditional practices among a changing society, it echoes some of the transitional processes that are experienced in Cambodia. What are the broader social, religious and cultural configurations that these adaptations suggest? Which networks of power and influence does the rural performance of this theater highlight? Through the example of the lkhon khol, this presentation aims to discuss how a community negotiates contemporary transitions, both locally and globally, in order to maintain its constitutive ritual activities.

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