The Monkey God’s last dance: Bidding a Lakhon Khol master farewell

Yit Sarin blesses a student before a Lakhon Khol performance. Supplied/Royal University of fine arts
Yit Sarin blesses a student before a Lakhon Khol performance. Supplied/Royal University of Fine Arts

After the troupe of young boys had performed the Monkey Dance, and a group of Apsara dancers had left the stage, 67-year-old Royal University of Fine Arts professor Proeung Chhieng stepped up, shoulders hunched, to the microphone to address the several hundred mourners. Behind him, at the top of an elaborate funeral pyre set up in a field at the Secondary School of Fine Arts, was the body of his friend and teacher, Yit Sarin, who passed away at 91 on Saturday night.

“Today, at his funeral, I am so sad to lose someone so valuable for the country,” Chhieng told Post Weekend at the funeral on Monday. “However, I am also happy to see his students, for whom he devoted great effort in teaching, at his funeral … We are preparing to carry on his legacy and complete his unfinished mission.”

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Proeung Chhieng cries while giving a eulogy for Yit Sarin on Monday evening. Eliah Lillis

Born on July 1, 1925, Sarin is renowned for being the first male dancer in Cambodia’s Royal Ballet and was the last surviving custodian of the knowledge, history and practice of the Khmer masked theatre dance known as Lakhon Khol. With his death, many fear an irreplaceable loss to the Kingdom’s cultural heritage.

Practitioners of the masked dance, relatives, and Minister of Culture and Fine Arts Phuong Sakonga paid their respects at the funeral service, but the overwhelming majority of those present were students at the Secondary School of Fine Arts, where Yit Sarin’s cremation was held.

All recalled Yit Sarin as a uniquely powerful teacher, dedicated to preserving and passing on the knowledge of Lakhon Khol.

“To be honest, we could not afford such a big funeral, but his students, who adore him, have put together the money to make it happen,” his 62-year-old daughter Kao Amry told Post Weekend.

“He was both a family man and a great artist,” said cousin Sith Sothea, 50.

Sothea’s orphaned father was raised by Yit Sarin during the post independence Sangkum period, she said, and after the Pol Pot regime, when Sothea and her brother were orphaned, Yit Sarin took them in as well. “He adored his family and relatives, as much as he adored Lakhon Khol.”

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Sarin Vathanak, Yit Sarin’s only son. Eliah Lillis

His only surviving son, 19-year-old Sarin Vathanak, recalled the utter devotion his father had for passing on the knowledge of the art form, even at the end of his life.

“My father had taught Lakhon Khol all his life until he was bedridden in 2015,” he said, weak from emotion. “I am grief-stricken to lose my father, but also proud of him.”

Grandpa White
Born “Keo Sar”, Sarin changed his name during the Khmer Rouge regime, although he later became known simply as Lok Ta Sar (Grandpa White) – a nod to his signature role: the Hindu deity Hanuman, who is represented as a white monkey.

The dramatic pre-Angkorian dance form involves masked characters performing episodes of the Reamker – the Khmer version of the Hindu epic Ramayana – while a director, speaking and singing in three distinct “voices”, narrates the play over music.

According to Professor Aok Bunthoeun, vice dean of the Faculty of Choreographic Arts at the Royal University of Fine Arts, the theatre was practiced in palaces and pagodas for centuries, but only by one gender.

“In the Royal Palace, it was said that officials would be jealous if male dancers were next to female dancers, so the male dancers of Lakhon Khol were relegated to pagodas,” he said.

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The funeral pyre at the Secondary School of Fine Arts. Eliah Lillis

But this all changed in 1940 when Queen Sisowath Kossamak called Yit Sarin and three other boys from the Wat Svay Andet pagoda in Kandal to perform the Monkey Dance for three days at the Royal Palace. Delighted with the performance, she put the four under the tutelage of Royal Ballet master Mam Yan. However, all but Yit Sarin grew homesick and left the palace.

From that “revolutionary” moment, Bunthoeun said, the Royal Ballet became the first Lakhon Khol troupe with both men and women on stage, although the roles of men would be limited to monkey characters and “the hermit” in the Reamker.

Beyond establishing himself as a master of the art, teaching subsequent generations of dancers, Yit Sarin served as King Norodom Sihanouk’s personal assistant (or his Moha Tlik) during his quest for independence, for which he received several Royal Honours.

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Yit Sarin (left) holds up the mask of the White Monkey. Supplied/RUFA

But the glory days at the Royal Palace were cut short with the Lon Nol coup in 1970, after which he worked as a messenger for the Khmer Republic’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

Then, with the Khmer Rouge takeover in 1975, Sarin and his family were forced out of Phnom Penh to Takeo province. He would lose both parents during the regime. However, Yit Sarin’s first wife and children were spared despite the regime’s targeting of artists and Lon Nol officials.

In his first book, published in 2005, which is only in Khmer, Yit Sarin writes that cadres were so entertained by his dancing that in an unlikely display of humanity the infamous southwest zone Commander Ta Mok, also known as “The Butcher”, personally ordered that Yit Sarin and his family be taken care of, although Post Weekend was unable to independently verify these claims.

Following the collapse of the Democratic Kampuchea regime, Sarin returned to his childhood stomping grounds, taking up teaching Lakhon Khol at the Wat Svay Andet pagoda until he was called to Phnom Penh to teach at the Ministry of Culture and to assume a professorship at RUFA in 1988. While he officially “retired” in 1989, Yit Sarin would continue to teach until age and illness confined him to his bed in 2015.

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Students from the Secondary School of Fine Arts lead the procession. Eliah Lillis

A parting wish
Yit Sarin’s contribution to arts and culture, especially after the Khmer Rouge regime, is what he is most distinguished for, being thrice awarded the royal arts and culture honour of Monisaraphorn, achieving the rank of “knight commander”. Yit Sarin is credited with writing the script to some 23 Lakhon Khol plays.

Professor Chhieng, who met Yit Sarin as an 8-year-old student in the Royal Ballet and counts himself, along with Bunthoeun, as the first generation of Yit Sarin’s students, credits him with single-handedly saving the art.

“After the Khmer Rouge, there were only a few Lakhon Khol artists, but in 30 years, he had trained about 200 professors. When I became the principal of the SSFA, I invited him to teach there,” he said.

But despite Yit Sarin’s efforts and government-bestowed honours, the art form has struggled to survive, with only two to five Lakhon Khol students graduating from RUFA on a given year.

Moreover, the art form is now practiced exclusively by men, with the last female troupe disbanding in the 1980s, Bunthoeun said, and while women can ask to pursue the course offered at RUFA, it is discouraged for lack of employment opportunity, and none have opted to for years.

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Mourners touch the hands and face of Yit Sarin. Eliah Lillis

“There used to be Lakhon Khol theatres everywhere. Now we do not even have one only Chaktomuk on occasion,” he said, adding that even for RUFA’s graduation performances, students from the secondary school need to be brought in to have a full cast of characters.

The threat to Lakhon Khol motivated Sarin to dance, teach and record as much of his knowledge as possible, his second wife, Bin Van, 50, told Post Weekend at his funeral.

“He adored Lakhon Khol, and he still practiced and taught at such an old age even bedridden he wanted to do it,” she said, adding that up until his death, he was working on publishing a second anthology of Lakhon Khol history and craft.

“Although he finished it, we did not have the money to publish it,” she said. “It is his dying wish to publish the manuscript.”

This wish, however, risked going unfulfilled this week when students volunteering to help with the funeral accidentally threw away the original copy as they cleaned his house.

After days of concern about the manuscript’s fate, Post Weekend notified Yit Sarin’s distraught wife that in fact, Bunthoeun had preserved a copy. The professor had kept in touch with the late master until the end, compiling a copy of the manuscript, archival images and instructive illustrations detailing the history and practice of the art form.

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An illustration from Sarin’s manuscript of the Monkey Dance . Supplied/RUFA

To go with it, Bunthoeun is hoping to publish a collection of all of Yit Sarin’s 23 plays, but thus far has only been able to track down 10.

“The new book will include images and history of the full collection of Lakhon Khol masks,” he said, flipping through photo albums at his RUFA office this week. “He had maybe 100 masks at his home.”

Bunthoeun had wanted to publish the book before Yit Sarin’s death, but a lack of financial resources prevented the project from being completed. For now, the stack of papers and photos sits on an office bookshelf.

Despite Sarin’s lack of money until his final days, students remembered his generosity fondly. Dancer Nuon Chhaylot, 33, who also teaches at RUFA, recalled studying under the master for nine years when he taught at the secondary school.

“He was like a father to me,” he said, adding that “most of his students were poor, but he loved them so much.”

“When I was still a student, he usually invited us to his house for a meal. Even when there was not enough to eat, he would not eat so that we could.”

Yit Sarin’s seven-day remembrance ceremony will continue today at Sarin’s house at Bayab Village, Phnom Penh Thmey, Phnom Penh. Those wishing to attend must dress in black or white attire.

Watch moments from Yit Sarin’s funeral here: