In the book ‘The First Royal Apsara,’ Ambassador Julio A. Jeldres chronicles the life and devotion of Princess Norodom Buppha Devi to the Royal Ballet. The 184-page book portrays beautiful photographs and artwork of Princess Buppha Devi’s life in several chapters. From her introduction to dance as a child to her rise as a royal celebrity to her role as Minister of Arts and Culture, she has dedicated herself to preserving Khmer culture and dance.
An author of Chilean descent, Ambassador Julio Jeldres, PHD, wrote the biography and tribute book. In 1967, after Jacqueline Kennedy visited Cambodia, Jeldres became interested in Cambodia’s modern history. During the next few years, he maintained a long correspondence and friendship with the late king’s father, Norodom Sihanouk, becoming a cabinet member, a member of his private secretariat, and a special assistant to him.
The late majesty granted Jeldres the title of ambassador and official biographer to him. Along with ‘Royal House of Cambodia,’ ‘Norodom Sihanouk and Zhou Enlai: An Extraordinary Friendship on the Fringes of the Cold War,’ Jeldres authored chapters and essays about the royal family, politics, and monarchy.
Year in the Making
The book project started in 1991 during a lunch conversation between Jeldres and the late Princess Buppha Devi at the Cambodiana Hotel in Phnom Penh. Jeldres recalls how the Princess wanted the book to be about the Royal Ballet, not herself, and how it has survived and thrived throughout Cambodia’s turbulent history.
In 2018, the project was revisited after the princess’ birthday in Bangkok, after the country had recovered from the devastation of the Khmer Rouge. Jeldres still felt the Princess’ contributions were significant to the book about the royal ballet despite her reluctance for interviews.
The Princess of Dance
The Cambodian Princess Norodom Buppha Devi was a dancer, director of the Royal Ballet of Cambodia, senator, and was once the Minister of Culture and Fine Arts. The elder sister of Prince Norodom Ranariddh and the half-sister of the current King of Cambodia, Norodom Sihamoni, she was the daughter of Norodom Sihanouk and Neak Moneang Phat Kanhol.
The princess became the premier dancer of the Royal Ballet of Cambodia at the age of 15 and was titled prima ballerina at the age of 18.
Princess Buppha Devi served as director of the Royal Ballet of Cambodia and was Minister of Culture and Fine Arts from 1998 to 2004. After her retirement from her government post, the Princess continued to advocate for the survival of Royal Ballet, after the Khmer Rouge regime. She died at the age of 76 in a hospital in Thailand on November 18, 2019.
Soon after Princess Buppha Devi’s demise, the Princess’s son, HRH Sisowath Veakchiravuddh, and Prince Tesso Sisowath, told Mr Jeldres that they wanted him to complete his research.
Memories of a Smile
HRH Prince Tesso Sisowath was one of the Princess’ closest and most faithful collaborators for many years. He assisted the Princess with the Royal Ballet’s tours and administration, among other things. Prince Tesso Sisowath is currently director of the Princess Buppha Devi Dance School, which he runs alongside ballet instructors Voan Savai and Om Yuk Vandy.
HRH Sisowath Veakchiravuddh and Prince Tesso Sisowath agree with Jeldres about publishing the book as a biography and tribute to the late Princess. Jeldres spent the next three years collecting information about Princess Buppha Devi; interviewing dancers, family members, and those who worked with her. He spent a lot of time in New York’s library conducting research.
“It was a challenging task, as the person I was writing about was no longer with us, not to mention the difficult time we had to go through because of the pandemic,” Jeldres recalled. “Her life was interesting, but also filled with moments of sadness; she was away from Cambodia and dancing which was a part of her life when she had to leave the country to live in China, and later to Yugoslavia and France.”
Jeldres hopes that readers will appreciate all the great work the Princess has done over the years. He felt one of her greatest accomplishments as the Minister of Arts and Culture, was retrieving a huge collection of Khmer antiquities from Thailand.
As he reminisces about the Princess’ life in the book ‘The First Royal Apsara,’ Jeldres will always remember her smile, a memory which will continue to inspire him.
The book is set to be translated into Khmer in the near future and is available for sale at The White Mansion on Street 240 and may be available soon at Monument Books.
Written by Sotheavy Nou