Chhayam Dance Performance
Chhayam is a traditional Khmer musical dance. It features the long-drum, clashing hand-held cymbals, wooden clackers, and other noisemakers made of commonly found materials. The performers show off in comic masks and exaggerated hair styles and make-up. Communal and spontaneous, the combination of drumming, comic exhibitions and animated vernacular call-and-response vocals are characteristics of Chhayam.
Chhayam performers often head ceremonial processions to and through Buddhist temple compounds. A line of men (usually five or seven) set up a rhythmic base on long drums held up with straps across one shoulder. That base is complemented by their own syncopated chanting or singing and the percussive clatter and clap of the clowns’ hand-held instruments. Clowns wear comical face paint or masks with exaggerated features. When leading a parade as part of a Buddhist ceremony, chhayam artists enliven the atmosphere and contribute to a sense of community as other participants freely stride behind or clap alongside the performers.
Though chhayam is also performed at secular events, including theatrical performances, it mainly serves as a vital aspect of Bon Phka and Bon Kathin, two Buddhist
ceremonies. Bon Phka (literally “Flower Ceremony”) can take place at any time of year and involves the presenting of monetary donations by lay people to a temple for a construction or repair project or some other community endeavor. Traditionally, paper money, folded to symbolize flower blossoms, is attached to small wire, plastic, or paper “trees.”
Bon Kathin occurs in October or November at the end of the monks’ rainy season retreat. Worshippers travel to hometown temples to offer new robes and supplies to the monks. Hundreds of celebrants circle the sanctuary three times as an act of reverence, with the chhayam drummers and dancers in the lead, helping to create a feeling of togetherness and joy.
Chhayam performances (and ensembles) are not formulaic. A community’s resources and local people’s talents and interests may dictate whether the emphasis is solely on the drumming and chanting or is broadened to include comic and other dancers.
The clowns, with masks or makeup in place, wear white or pastel short-sleeved shirts and dark kben, pantaloons made from three yards of cotton fabric wrapped around the waist and pulled through the legs.
They strike cymbals, tap gongs, or clap pairs of wooden sticks while dancing knock-kneed or pigeon-toed. The drummers, in the same outfits, play instruments that are often decorated with ruffled, brightly colored cloth. A female dancer—with no mask—may join in, performing the graceful steps and gestures of the roam wong, a popular social dance. Wearing a kben and a fancy shirt of lace or other fine material, she invariably attracts the attention of a drummer. A comic interlude transpires as the drummer flirts and tries to impress her by tossing his drum around his body. He may go so far as to pick up the three-foot-long wooden instrument and balance it between his teeth. If no woman appears, the solo drummer may instead perform a kind of duel with the cymbal-player in which they mock and compete with each other, utilizing martial arts–like movements. All the while the other drummers continue their spirited, at times nonsensical, singing. A lead drummer starts the chant and the others repeat or respond to it.