Since 1998, Cambodian Living Arts (CLA) has made it its mission to support the revival and development of Cambodian arts and culture. AsiaLIFE finds out more. Photography by Chenla Media, Pakka, and Seng Chansereypich.

Cambodia is traditionally a country that is rich in arts and culture. Singers could be found on almost every street corner, musicians in every village, theatres were full and budding dancers were aplenty.

But when the Khmer Rouge came into power in 1975, all of this changed. Within four years, an estimated two million Cambodians had been killed or died from starvation and exhaustion. Among those were 90 percent of the country’s artists, who were targeted by the regime.

With skills, which were rarely documented, passed from masters to students orally, the Kingdom’s traditional arts, music, song and dance were almost wiped out. For the few surviving master artists who avoided death by lying about their identity, making a living through performances and teaching was tough.

CLA founder, Arn Chorn-Pond, is one of the surviving musicians. Born in Battambang, he was separated from his family in 1975 and sent to a children’s labour camp. Here he was taught by a traditional arts master to play the Cambodian hammered dulcimer, khim.playing propaganda music for Khmer Rouge generals.

In 1979, he fled his captors when Vietnamese troops invaded Cambodia. He escaped to a Thai refugee camp, where Peter Pond, a Lutheran minister and aid worker, adopted him in 1980. Chorn-Pond was educated in America and started a string of projects and organisations, including Peace Makers, a US-based gang-intervention project for Southeast Asian youngsters.

In the mid-1990s, Chorn-Pond returned to Cambodia, where he found surviving master artists living in harsh conditions. In 1998, he created Cambodian Masters Performers Program, which grew into CLA.

Initially it supported four masters, providing them with instruments, teaching spaces and a salary. By the mid-2000s, CLA was supporting 16 Master Artists and 11 assistant teachers, and reaching over 200 students in 8 provinces each year.

As the country continued to recover from the war, needs changed and a new generation of artists emerged. In 2011, CLA began increasing its focus on supporting new generations of artists, students and teachers. It added new programmes, including scholarships, training, and paid performance opportunities.

Today, it operates a series of projects across the country. The Artist Development programme supports artists and arts communities to build sustainable futures in the sector, by directly supporting arts teaching, and by helping small artistic enterprises to establish themselves.

The learning and leadership arm aims to supply the arts sector with professional, confident, creative people, by providing those studying or working in arts with skills and experience. The Arn Chorn-Pond Living Arts Scholarships started in 2011 and will continue through 2017, with 23 students receiving financial support as well as personal and professional development training. Students study arts from painting to architecture, dance and circus.

As well as supporting artists, CLA works to ensure there are jobs in arts and culture so the industry is viable. And this is the side of CLA most familiar to tourists, especially through its daily Traditional Dance Show at its charming outdoor theatre at the National Museum in Phnom Penh.

The next 12 months promise to be exciting with preparations underway for two festivals [details to be confirmed]. One will celebrate the creativity and leadership of women working in the arts and the other is a youth-oriented contemporary dance festival, the third in CLA’s Jolana Jongjam (Movement Memory) series.

The Living Arts Fellows programme – a year-long career development opportunity for leaders and innovators from the arts and culture sector – will continue. This month, the programme for 2016’s fellows – visual artist Chhan Dina, Huot Dara, CEO of Phare, the Cambodian Circus, KOR Borin, head of IFC’s Cultural Department, and Helene Veal, founder of Samay.TV – will wrap up with an arts careers event and exhibition by local artists, followed by a charity auction.

The organisation will also work with the Ministry of Education, Youth, and Sports, Ministry of Culture and Fine Arts and UNESCO to better integrate culture and arts education into the education system. A pilot programme is gearing up to launch in Phnom Penh in early 2017.

Support CLA and the artists by watching the Traditional Dance Show at the National Museum daily from 7pm to 8pm. For information, visit cambodianlivingarts.org/show or email bookings@cambodianlivingarts.org .