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Cambodians revive traditional arts scene
Cambodians are once again rediscovering their traditional artistic and cultural roots, as Nidhi Dutt reports.

In times of conflict and unrest art can be one of the first victims and among the last to bounce back.

Cambodia's Khmer culture was traumatised by Pol Pot and his brutal communist regime.

Now as economic development takes hold, Cambodians are once again rediscovering their traditional artistic roots.

Nidhi Dutt reports from Phnom Penh.
NIDHI DUTT, REPORTER: Young dancers perfect ancient steps.

In open air classrooms like this one, Cambodia's Khmer arts scene is being brought back from the brink of extinction.

(Footage of girls learning a dance)

It's a busy morning of rehearsals here at this fine arts school in Phnom Penh. Girls from eight through to 18, as you can see behind me, are getting ready to practise traditional Khmer dance.

And these classes are significant because through decades of civil war and unrest Cambodia's traditional arts were all but destroyed. But in the years following groups, schools and organisations like this one have been created to educate young Cambodians and revive Khmer culture.

(Footage of Moa Tip Mouy teaching)

Moa Tip Mouy is a Khmer dance teacher. She weaves between rows of students correcting their postures and movements.

But this isn't an easy task. With little information to go by, Moa Tip Mouy says instructors in post-war Cambodia are struggling to teach with conviction.

MOA TIP MOUY, DANCE TEACHER (translation): It's difficult because we don't have the teaching materials. We need books to show students how to dance. At the moment, we do not have the basics to educate them properly. All we have are techniques that have been passed on to us by old instructors.

(Archival footage of Cambodia during Khmer Rouge regime)

NIDHI DUTT: The four year rule of the Khmer Rouge from 1975 to 1979 was one of the most brutal in history. It's estimated that 90 per cent of the country's artists, musicians, dancers and intellectuals were killed, key targets of the regime.

The decimation of this once vibrant community has left a gaping hole in the country's cultural heritage, and Cambodia's education system with a huge and potentially overwhelming challenge.

KHAMBOLY DY, DOCUMENTATION CENTRE OF CAMBODIA: More than 50 per cent of the Cambodian young generation are born after the Khmer Rouge regime. So I believe not only added culture but many other knowledge, including the social morality have to be taught in school, so that the Cambodian young generation are prepared to preserve their culture and to prevent the reoccurrence of such kinds of damage.

NIDHI DUTT: But the stars of yesteryear haven't been silenced.

(Footage of Ros Veasna performing)

Ros Veasna was one of Khmer music's it girls in the 1960s. She rose from provincial obscurity to great stages across the country. Like many of her peers the singer was imprisoned in a camp by Khmer Rouge.

She says those dark days only deepened her passion and resolve to keep Khmer music alive.

ROS VEASNA, KHMER SINGER (TRANSLATION): In order to preserve this music and make it more sustainable I want to train people. I'm already training my family. It's important for me to keep these traditions alive.

(Footage of Krom Monster performing)

NIDHI DUTT: But it is not just the old timers that see the importance of reviving and preserving their country's artistic heritage. Young Cambodians are starting to shoulder more of that responsibility.

Here members of Krom Monster, a local band, mix the sounds of traditional instruments with electronica. They're not only putting a new spin on Khmer music but making it more palatable to younger audiences and attractive internationally.

This many say is the cool quotient that the country's traditional arts desperately need.

SOUR VANNA, KROM MONSTER (TRANSLATION): We used to only perform during traditional ceremonies and weddings. Before Krom Monster none of us had ever mixed our music with computer generated sounds. This is a new development for you all of us and a new development for Khmer music.

NIDHI DUTT: And the movement to invigorate this South East Asian artistic voice expands well beyond experimental music.
(Footage of Lim Sokchalina taking a photograph)

Lim Sokchalina captures Phnom Penh's skyline. New School is a fitting description for this bright young photographer whose work focuses on subjects like corrugated iron fences, mundane to many, but Lim says they represent the rapid economic development across Cambodia.

For years local artists have explored and been inspired by themes such as genocide, conflict and destruction, all legacies of the Khmer Rouge.

LIM SOCKCHALINA, PHOTOGRAPHER: I'm more interested in what's happening now and in the future, especially how the globalisation comes to Cambodia and affects us and on and on. So I'm more interested in social changes, cultures, environments, that affects from the globalisation. So most of my work is somehow related.

NIDHI DUTT: While some Cambodian artists are looking for new ways to express themselves and their country's story of revival, others are only just discovering the steps that started it all.

(Footage of girls learning dance)

While rehearsals like this one are a move in the right direction, there's still a long road ahead for Cambodia's all but lost art forms.
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