The Apsara of Cambodia | The Merchants of the Performing Arts

It’s a performance. It’s all an act. And yet, it’s so believable that we are mesmerised, transfixed and transported to another world. We think it’s real, even when we know it’s not. The actors, singers and dancers rehearse over and over again till it looks real and feels real.

But it isn’t real. It is the work of a professional performer.

Today, a colleague of mine quipped that actors and singers are the salespeople of the performing arts. They get on stage and they pretend to be people they are not. They enact lives that once belonged to others. They reenact stories that have been told countless times. They sing songs they probably didn’t write and they play music that others composed.

They usually consider themselves to be creatives, but are they the true creators of the work that they are performing? Or is the Creator hidden away somewhere, away from the prying eyes of the world?

They–the performers–are the merchants of the performing arts.

They are not the creators, but the co-creators.

The Apsara

The Apsara was born in the creation myths of India. But that was not where they developed or took hold in the consciousness of the people. The tale of the Apsara would have to travel to Cambodia before it found its true home.

Today, at the library, I saw old manuscripts that playwrights had written. These were not novels to be read and nor were they academic works to studied. Plays are written to be performed.

When we hear cover versions of our beloved songs, we do not grow tired. We compare the various performances and interpretations, but the true accolade, as always, belongs to the writers and composers. It is their work that the performers draw upon and breathe life into.

In South and Southeast Asian myths, the Apsaras were celestial courtesans and dancers. The apprenticeship to become a dancer on earth, however, was long and hard. It took years and years of dedicated practise before one became divinely inspired. Aspiring dancers took their cue and derived their inspiration from these celestial courtesans who entertained the gods.

After the epic battle that took place between the Gods and Demons, it is believed that the Gods took possession of not only the nectar of immortality; but also of the Apsaras. The Apsaras became the courtesans of Indra: the King of the Gods.

Their memories and their tales are carved into the bas-reliefs on the temple walls of Angkor Wat. Nude to the waist, they are represented in choreographed poses as frozen images struck into stone.

Necklaces adorn their necks and bracelets adorn their wrists. A translucent cloth is wrapped around their hips and hoisted in place with a decorated belt. The headdress is always grand and never austere. The mind is the crowning glory of the dancer.

In a dreamlike past, dancers grew their hair long only to bind it up in a chignon. In its heyday, dance was a religious practise and a venerated art. There were two types of dancers. The sacred dancers who lived in the temples; and the others, who roamed freely to do as they pleased.

The bridge between humanity and the Gods is crossed when we channel the Divine through our art. It is perfected when our art form reaches superhuman heights.

The costumes may change, but the art form always remains.

The performer’s quest for perfection is never complete. But in that rare moment when one is successful in channeling the divine–the Creator and the Co-Creator’s work is complete.


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