Apsara Granny: A Dream Come True

PHNOM PENH – It’s never too late to achieve a dream. The saying goes all the way to a 79-year-old granny, Raksa, who just fulfilled her dream of dressing up in the exquisite golden costume of the mythical dancer Apsara. She had wanted to do so since she was 12 years old.

“I had this dream when I was a young girl. In the past, only the royal family got to see Apsara dancers. Ordinary people like me had no idea what Apsaras looked like,” Raksa said while smiling widely sitting in the Cambodian Children’s Fund (CCF) garden in Phnom Penh’s Stung Meanchey district, where she lives and works.

Before joining the CCF 17 years ago, Raksa lived in extreme poverty, eating the leftover food from street vendors in front of garment factories. She was then discovered by CCF and taken to stay at the community houses, where she was tasked to look after children.

While she has seen several generations of children growing up and completing their dreams in higher education and careers, she always remained hopeful she would one day dress up as an Apsara, even though she was only getting older, straying from the beauty canons normally attributed to celestial dancers.

Granny Raksa. Photo_  Rafael Pech (Cambodia_Streetwise)

A project to highlight women’s resilience

But thanks to a team of professional photographers, she finally could make her dream come true.

To give elders a chance to wear the dancers’ golden costumes, photographers Hao Taing, Ken Bo and Raphael Pech launched the APSARA Granny project, putting the spotlight on mothers and grandmothers.

Collaborating with the CFF, the trio set up a surprise dress-up and photoshoot for two grannies under the care of the CCF. By dressing them up as Apsara dancers, their goal was to highlight the resilience of mothers and grandmothers. The photos were released on May 9.

Hao Taing says this project is part of the “Feel the Warmth” campaign, a movement to tell stories about Cambodia beyond Angkor Wat and the Khmer Rouge – the two main topics for which the country is known.

“The campaign aims to use storytelling and creativity to share the friendliness and warmth of the Cambodian people,” he said.

Two Apsaras, 183 years old in total

Granny Raksa was photographed along with her 104-year-old best friend, Granny Mao. The two ladies are inseparable in the CCF compound, and people say they have probably been connected in a former life. 

Like Raksa, Mao was taken away from the streets by the CCF’s granny project, after years of picking up garbage to survive.

Kong Sovannmony, the manager of the CCF granny project, said the two grannies make a great duo for photoshoots as they can portray the emotions and happiness of old ladies in their golden costumes.

Dressing up old ladies as Apsara dancers brings a new taste and idea of how the celestial dancers might look like when aging.

“It was Raksa and Mao’s first time doing a photoshoot, and I was there with them,” he said. “I was very happy. It’s like seeing Queen Indratevi,” he said, referring to Jayamarama 7th’s wife during the Khmer Empire.

Granny Mao. Photo_ Rafael Pech (Cambodia_Streetwise)

Despite her old age, Granny Mao could endure the heaviness of the costumes and jewelry and managed to smile and make lively dancing movements.

“The costumes are heavy, but I remained still for them to put the clothes on me. I heard they said I was pretty, but I don’t know because I couldn’t see myself clearly,” she said. She has bad eyesight due to her old age.

Cambodian Children’s Fund gives hope to children and elders

Kong Sovannmony said 1,700 children are studying under the support of the CCF. The granny project that he is managing was launched in 2012 and has helped almost 300 elderly so far.

This project is for vulnerable old people who do not have a family, cannot pay their medical bills and don’t have shelter. Beneficiaries are from various provinces, such as Takeo, Kampong Cham or Prey Veng.

Living under the CCF, Granny Raksa and Mao see a second life where they can travel, have warm meals three times a day and live with care and support they had never dreamt of getting.

“I don’t know where my life would have been without the CCF,” Mao said.Photo_ Rafael Pech Photo_ Rafael Pech (Cambodia_Streetwise)

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