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Sunday, May 26, 2002

Where art and religion meet

DANCE OF LIFE: The Mythology, History and Politics of Cambodian Culture, by Julie B. Mehta. Singapore, 2001, 304 pp., $96.15/2,800 baht (cloth)

In this beautifully illustrated book on Cambodian classical dance, Julie B. Mehta examines the richness of Khmer culture, the horror of the Pol Pot era and the devastating effect it had on traditional dance, and the rise of a new generation of talented Khmer dancers dedicated to reviving the art form.

The author, an Indian by birth who now lives in Thailand, spent 10 years in Cambodia researching her subject, has close contacts with all those who matter in the field and holds a deep understanding and appreciation of the cultures of both India and Southeast Asia. Her love for Cambodia's centuries-old classical dance tradition is unmistakable, and her writing both scholarly and evocative: One can almost see the beautiful deities of Angkor Wat reincarnated as the young and charming royal ballerinas of today.

One of Mehta's principle sources is Cambodia's Princess Buppha Devi, the country's minister of culture and an acclaimed classical dancer in her own right. Numerous interesting insights are attributed to her, and to a few other grand old ladies of the art who miraculously survived Khmer Rouge leader Pol Pot's persecution of any manifestation of culture and talent.

In her foreword to the book the princess hails Mehta's work as a positive step toward focusing attention on the resurrection of Cambodian culture, instead of adding to "a publishing overkill" dealing with the Khmer Rouge genocide. Mehta herself notes the important role that dance has to play, writing that "Cambodian classical dance is the single most lively connection the modern Khmer have with their glorious ancestors."

The book examines the links between Indian and Khmer culture, and how Cambodia's extensive cultural borrowings from India have been adapted to suit its own needs (as fellow scholar Solange Thierry has stated, "Everything comes from India, but all is transformed, all is Khmer"). A chapter of particular interest is the one dedicated to the "Reamker," the Khmer Ramayana. The study of regional versions of the great Indian epic is a never-ending scholarly pursuit, and Mehta offers some interesting insights into the local adaptation of the saga. The differences she points out may, however, be better explained to some extent by the fact that originally there were two major streams of Ramayana tradition, the northern legends with their Brahmanical coloring and the southern legends where the accent is on the fantastic, the mythological and the miraculous.

"Dance of Life" is a little repetitive in places, and nonspecialist readers will wish for a glossary, but overall it is a fascinating and authoritative account, not least because of Mehta's understanding of comparative religion. Khmer dance was not and is not just an artistic form; it is the plastic expression of layers of religious beliefs and rituals, transplanted from abroad but fertilized with the perennial beliefs of the Khmer.

George Sioris, a former ambassador of Greece to Japan, is president emeritus of the Asiatic Society of Japan. He is affiliated with several universities and academic institutions in Japan and elsewhere in Asia and is a contributing adviser to The Japan Times.

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