Wednesday, August 08, 2007

Siem Reap: Chantiers Ecoles

Our first day in Siem Reap saw us at a crafts school for the underpriviledged children. Here, students from deprived local families undergo extensive training in wood carving, stone carving and lacquerwork.

The primary target of the school is to teach skills and traditional arts that were lost during the Khmer Rouge years and also to give the poor and deprived children of Cambodia a place to learn useful skills for their future.

The first classroom was dedicated to the art of silk painting. Here, the students were trained to hand paint predetermined designs onto locally produced silk which are then made into pictures, scarves, clothes and bags. Most of the designs are inspired by Hindu traditions as well as Khmer folklore.

The art of stone carving goes back to the epoch of the Khmer empire and its monumental constructions that gave rise to the Angkor temples. Like the work of craftsmen from previous centuries, stone carving is done on sandstone.

As for wood sculpture, the designs and inspirations are selected based on ancient woodwork found in buildings, small furniture items and pagoda ornamentation. The majority of the wood used is from the rubber tree, notably for lacquered and gilded items.

The young craftsmen have inherited patience and meticulousness from their predecessors in the trade. They learn to capture the movements used in olden times and master the traditional tools that they make themselves and adapt to their personal lines of work.

It is interesting to note that while Angkor Wat and the surrounding ancient temples are actually Hindu monuments, nowadays, the skills inherited from the ancient ancestors are being used to create mostly Buddhist icons and sculptures.

There is also a section of the school where students (mostly girls) meticulously hand paint each and every carving or sculpture to a specific design and theme. Most of these items are then selected and sold at local art shops, museums and even exported to Thailand, China and Europe.

A majority of the wood items are sent to be lacquered to give it a glossy sheen and to prolong its shelf-life. The best products are then displayed at the Les Artisans D'Angkor, the school's retail outlet.

This is an example of the finished product: a lovely sandstone sculpture of a woman's torso. Note: This is not an anatomically correct sculpture, as I found most Cambodian women to be rather erm... flat-chested. ;)

I found it quite disturbing that a lot of the statues here and indeed all across Angkor, the heads and arms have been severed, usually intentionally.

Here I am, sitting next to a figure of the Naga, a seven headed serpent, which represents the seven tribes of the Naga family. Legend has it that the Naga family once ruled over a vast Pacific empire. The Naga King's daughter married an Indian Brahmana named Kaundinya, and from their union sprang the Cambodian people. This is why today, Cambodians say that they are "born from the Naga".

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