“You are in your ancestors’ land,” Tamara Fielding said to her grandson as they stepped off the plane at Yogyakarta’s Adisucipto Airport. This was the boy’s first visit to Indonesia, but to his grandmother, one of the world’s few female dalang, or Javanese puppet masters, it was a homecoming.
Fielding was born 78 years ago in Cimahi, a city more than 400 kilometers northwest of Yogyakarta. These Javanese cities are a part of Fielding — her mother was from West Java while her father was Dutch. When Fielding was a small child, her father, the owner of a rubber plantation in Garut, West Java, would organize wayang, or Javanese shadow puppets, for his workers.
“I watched those shows as a child,” Fielding recalled. “The women and children would sit in front of the screen, where they could only see the shadows — the spiritual world. The men would sit behind the screen, where they could see the actual puppets — the material world.
“But I would see it from both sides, being the daughter of the plantation owner.”
During the Japanese occupation, Fielding and female members of her family were imprisoned for more than three years in one of the concentration camps for women. After the Japanese left in 1945, a revolution took place that forced Dutch citizens and those with mixed-race parents to leave. The family fled to the Netherlands.
Even far from Indonesia, the shaking, twisting gods, goddesses, giants and beasts from the wayang shows remained etched in Fielding’s mind. While her sisters found work as a teacher and a nurse — common professions for women in Europe in those days — Fielding was brave enough to leave for France to pursue her dream in the dramatic arts. In 1956, she appeared in “Lust for Life,” starring Kirk Douglas, and “Trapeeze,” featuring Gina Lollobrigida.
Fielding eventually emigrated to the United States, where she married and settled in New York.
Her passion for Javanese puppetry resurfaced 28 years ago after an aunt brought her several old leather Javanese puppets from the Netherlands. From those early presents, Fielding’s collection has grown to more than 400 pieces.
She has created her own world of wayang at home, erecting a screen and giving each character its own distinct voice. It was just the way she remembered it from her childhood.
After receiving the precious gift from her aunt, she decided to study wayang in the Netherlands. She says that one can learn the philosophy of wayang and techniques in Java, but in the Netherlands, one can learn more about the history of the art form.
She returned to New York and founded her own wayang company, Tamara and the Shadow Theatre of Java. She became the first Indonesian-born female dalang, a title traditionally forbidden for women, and has performed all across the United States. She has brought her mastery to many schools, both public and private.
“I always start by explaining what wayang is, where it is from and the philosophy behind it — a 15-minute wayang education,” said Fielding, who prefers to perform tales from the epic Sanskrit poem Ramayana, which tells the tale of Rama trying to rescue his wife, Sita, from the demon king.
To stage a Ramayana story, she can use more than 200 puppets, each made from cow hides and horns. Her shows run less than two hours, a big cut from the traditional duration of more than eight hours.
“My favorite is always wayang kancil, [where the main character,] the mouse deer is a bit naughty but very clever,” Fielding said.
Sitting in the lush garden of a hotel in Yogyakarta, she was wearing a kebaya top and a bright purple orchid blossom was tucked behind her left ear.
“Kancil can cross a river by jumping on the back of crocodiles by outsmarting them by saying that he would later give the first crocodile one leg, the second the other leg and so on until he gets to the other side.”
Besides the United States, Fielding has been invited to perform and talk about wayang in Greece, Brazil and Indonesia. In 1999, Fielding was invited to perform at the Wayang International Festiva in Jakarta. She has also performed on eight cruise ships.
“When the [cruise ship] passengers arrive in Java, they would usually go to buy wayang, already knowing which character is which. The seller becomes surprised,” Fielding said with a laugh.
Her knowledge of wayang, especially wayang kancil, grew when she met Ki Ledjar Subroto, a dalang and a wayang maker, in Yogyakarta eight years ago. Part of Fielding’s wayang collection came from him.
The reasons she came to Yogyakarta this time were to pay Ledjar a visit, order more puppets and introduce the master to her daughter, son-in-law and two grandchildren.
Located on Jalan Mataram near Yogyakarta’s famed Jalan Malioboro, Ledjar’s tiny house was wedged in by shops and eateries. As soon as his guests arrived, Ledjar unveiled his latest puppet collection, including pieces from the contemporary puppet show of the famous Dutch figure Willem van Oranje. One of the pieces Ledjar created for the show was an ornate Dutch castle. His other works include puppet versions of Batman and several of his artist friends.
“It is amazing how he can come up with so many creative ideas,” said Fielding, holding a kancil puppet in one hand.
Fielding has proven that dreams do come true, and she is not afraid to come up with new ones. Her latest dream is to adapt “Shadow Princess” into an animated film.
“People say, ‘You shouldn’t be walking at 78,’ ” Fielding said, laughing. “But I keep performing. I’ve had a book published. I go on cruise ships, and I am still talking about wayang.”