Lust For Life Thrives On a Shadowy Stage

The New York Times

Sunday, December 10, 2000

Lust for Life Thrives On a Shadowy



IMAGINE some favorite puppet characters, like Kermit the Frog, Big Bird and Ms. Piggy, are captured by an invading nation and used to voice competing theologies and political policies. Sound a tad farfetched? Something similar actually happened on the island of Java 55 years ago when the Wayang Revolusie‘ came to be.

Just ask Tamara Fielding, a puppeteer who immigrated to Long Island from her native Java in 1956. Ms. Fielding has since performed her one-woman show, Tamara and the Shadow Theater of Java,‘ in Long Island theaters, colleges and schools and at festivals from Great Neck to Greece. Her own life story is as dramatic and complex as the art form she practices, and the story of her journey from Java, Indonesia, to Northport is woven with the threads of politics, war, love, remembrance and home.

Ms. Fielding is a dalang, or shadow master; her specialty is wayang kulit, the traditional Indonesian art of shadow puppetry in which mythological tales are told through intricately carved rod puppets. Made from buffalo hides and horns, the characters tell stories symbolic of the human condition by casting their shadows on a cotton screen illuminated by lamplight. In Indonesia, dalangs craft and manipulate their puppets to portray traditional Hindu-Javanese legends. During the Japanese occupation of the Dutch East Indies (now Indonesia) in World War II, Indonesians fought the Dutch for independence. The dalangs’ centuries-old puppets were rebuilt in the images of President Sukarno, his cabinet members and Japanese soldiers who aided the Indonesians in their battles against the Dutch. Wayang became the medium through which the new government promoted family values. Today the art is taught throughout Indonesia in special schools where aspiring storytellers can earn certificates to become dalangs. An Indonesian women’s movement has named itself after the rebellious mythological character, Srikandi, the woman who traditionally questions male authority in shadow theater.

Tamara Fielding first saw a wayang kulit play at age 8 on her familys rubber plantation on Java. Behind a screen illuminated by the light of an oil lamp, the filigree- perforated puppets danced out their tales under a starry sky. The skillful hands of the dalang made the puppets quest, fight, grieve, triumph and love until sunrise brought the event to a close. Ms. Fielding remembers it as an almost mystical experience that proved to be a great force in my artistic development.

But the road to the realization of her artistic and cultural heritage as a Javanese- Long Island puppeteer was fraught with hardship and trauma: during the war, her family was imprisoned by the Japanese. Her mother was Javanese, her father Dutch, and Ms. Fielding grew up speaking both languages. After surviving three years in a concentration camp for Javanese women, she faced prosecution for her Dutch heritage when the Dutch colonial empire collapsed. Her family fled to Holland with other refugees when Tamara was 12. As a young adult, she became a drama student in Paris and appeared in the films Lust for Life‘ and Trapeze.

Flash forward to Aug. 26, 2000: Ms. Fielding is waiting to begin her performance at the Northeastern Performing Arts Conference in Boston. As she puts the finishing touches on her puppets, who are assembled in a crowd beside the 12-foot-long screen while a rocknroll band finishes its set in the foreground, Ms. Fielding explains that even though she was unceremoniously uprooted from her native land, I never lost my love and passion for the art of puppetry — the magic and stories of the wayang were locked inside me. I had a few old wayang puppets given to me by relatives many years before, so I built a screen and started to play with them. I spoke for the puppets just the way I remembered them speaking. Now I have 400 puppets.

Only a small collection made the trip from Northport to Boston, where the showcase was held in the John F. Kennedy Library on the Charles River. A display outside the room indicated several firsts, and, in her own way, Ms. Fielding is one of these: she has won renown as the first Javanese-born female dalang to perform wayang kulit professionally outside Indonesia, where her posters are typically blacked out when she returns for a performance.

The art of the dalang is a practice forbidden for women on Java. There, boys are taught to operate the puppets, girls to decorate them. Its a common after-school activity, and a way for boys and girls to meet each other,‘ Ms. Fielding said. ”But during the performance, the men and boys are led around the back of the screen so they can see the dalang at work. The women and girls have to remain in the audience, so they never learn how it works.

Ms. Fieldings puppet people range from Sinta, a questing princess, to Gareng, a master magician. Striking reds, purples and lots of gold make them a feast for the eyes even when motionless. As Ms. Fielding, with a flowing silk scarf and a lily in her hair, disappears behind the screen, the puppets begin a traditional morality tale she likens to a soap opera. For the next 30 minutes, puppets flip, twist, cavort, console, mesmerize and mourn as her various voices cast their hypnotic spell.

The action is framed by two giant leaf shapes, each representing the Tree of Life. While it appears two-dimensional, the tree actually has three sides: the good side, which shows the tree rooted on the roof of a temple, the evil side, which resembles an eye- bulging clown mask, and the shadow side‘ as it appears when the colors shine through the screen. After the show, Ms. Fielding recalled meeting Julie Taymor, the Tony Award- winning puppeteer behind the Broadway musical The Lion King,‘ in Manhattan. In a talk for the Association of Performing Arts Presenters, Ms. Taymor spoke of the profound influence Javanese puppet theater had on her career during the four years she lived in Indonesia after graduating from Oberlin College in Ohio. Ms. Fielding reciprocated by presenting Ms. Taymor with two female puppet characters from her collection, the assertive Srikandi and the submissive Sumbadra. Ms. Taymor, of course, recognized both.

Last August, Ms. Fielding spoke and performed at the International Wayang Festival in Jakarta, where the president welcomed her. In March, she will return to Indonesia aboard the cruise ship S.S. Rotterdam, on which she will perform.

Images: Photo: Tamara Fielding, a resident of Northport who is part Javanese, is a master in the traditional Indonesian art of shadow puppetry.