Dalang Wija’s three daughters.

A Dalang’s Daughter Returns

Once upon a time in sleepy Sanur there was a very naughty little girl called Tantri Wija. Her Balinese father, Nyoman Wija, was a dalang (puppet-master), and her American mother, Kristina Melcher was the U.S. consular agent and a gender wayang musician.
Amazingly, Tantri was born on the holy day for puppets, Tumpek Wayang, a birth date considered ‘difficult’ for any child but particularly ‘difficult’ for the daughter of a dalang. Truckloads of offerings were required for her first oton (Balinese birthday), but nothing really worked she needed a small country to terrorize and torment but only had us — that is, her small family, which included a saintly Nanny, called Desak Putu Gabrig and her mother’s small circle of expatriate friends.
In 1993, Wija and Kristina parted ways: there has been only sporadic communication between this column and both parties in the years since. I knew both had remarried and assumed Tantri had outgrown her ‘Medusa’ phase but I was not prepared for the shock I got when arriving at the family house in Sukawati for Tantri’s tooth-filing, late last month.
Now read on:


Kristina Melcher in 1979 playing the gender wayang

27th June 2010: Tantri finally comes of age
I arrive at 8.30 a.m. at Wija’s house. The compound is bedecked with offerings and decorations ― it is obviously going to be a serious affair — and find my ‘god-daughter’ in a sea of kissing cousins in a back room. She is big and beautiful — approximately three times the size of her cousins — and twice the size of her pretty Italo-Balinese sisters-in-law who, together with their Italian mother Antonella De Santis (of Ubud’s “Black Beach” Italian Restaurant), were also to have their teeth filed today.
It is very moving to meet the fine woman  the terror-tot from hell had grown into — Tantri now produces films in Albuquerque  (and why not?) — and has all the charm and grace of her mother, and a good dose of ‘sazzy’ too, being a star dalang’s daughter.
Wija, still a babe-magnet, wonders amongst his flock benignly.
The boy cousins are all artists and the girls cousins all dancers.

•        •        •

The exhaustive dressing phase finishes by 10. a.m. and the six teenage cousins — all in gold and yellow and white ceremonial dress — sit on the floor. The most handsome plays the guitar. Together they sing a soft ballad from local band SUPERMAN IS DEAD. It is way too beautiful — I weep tears of joy.

•        •        •

The ceremony starts. Present in the courtyard are the crème de la crème of Ubud expat working womanhood — dancer and anthropologist (Jero) Rucina Ballinger and writers’ festival Queen Janet DeNeefe — and a team of Italian supporters toting have-a-sacks and video cameras. They scrambled up onto the ceremonial pavilion as the first tooth-filing starts — flailing limbs and scattering cake trays — and I have to throw myself between the mob and the officiating Brahmans.
During Tantri’s dental work I hold her legs lovingly, as I have watched Balinese mums do, to assuage her fears — Americans are fussy about their pearly whites!!!...
At one point I take her hand and lay it gently on the crotch of the boy cousin who shares her pavilion ‘bed (in a nice not a nasty way) so that she will be ‘enteng jodoh’ or easily-mated.

The Seminyak contingent arrives in old Kutai

15th June, 2010: A beautiful “Hindu on the High Seas — Bali Goes to Borneo” tale comes to light
I visit my friend fashion-designer Milo in his Dyana Pura dream house – it is his Mama’s 88th birthday! – and hear of further pilgrimages of Milo and his Seminyak ‘disciples’ to Kutai, in East Kalimantan, where Hindu first came to Indonesia in the 5th Century A.D. (see Stranger in Paradise, ‘Change in Bali’, March 2008).
A contingent of Seminyak priests and devotees — lead by the irrepressible high  priest Pedanda Gunung — travelled the eight hours by road from Banjarmasin airport into the wilds of the Upper Mahakam river, to cleanse the base of an ancient stone stele whose top bit — inscribed with a Pali text that recounts the arrival of Indian Hindu priests in ancient times — is in the National Museum in Jakarta.
Milo shows me photos of the 50 strong contingents – I mean who would imagine that trendy Seminyak is also home to Bali’s most progressive crusaders!!—and describes the ceremonies that surrounded the consecration of the stele base as a holy relic by Balinese high priests.


Pedanda Gunung and his wife

The bottom of the 6th century stela in its enclosure

Milo and two angels

Newly sanctified stela (stela-devotion in progress)

•           •           •

Another great story of restoration then came to light, again involving Pedanda Gunung. This time in his home village of Blahbatuh. I showed Milo some Hindu ceremony photos I had to swap (this is what expat designers do in their twilight years) of the first appearance of the Gajah Mada mask in 500 odd years, at a big temple festival, officiated by Pedanda Gunung, at Pura Durga Kutri in Buruan Village near Blahbatuh on 26th June. Gajah Mada was the legendary prime minister of the Golden Majapahit Empire (East Java 13th – 16th century) who first united all of the Indonesian islands and much of present day Malaysia, Thailand and Cambodia too.
The mask was worn as part of the Topeng Sidakarya mask dance ritual that concludes any major temple festival in Bali.


The Gajah Mada mask is danced at the Pura Durga Kutri Temple.

•           •           •

Back in Sanur I have dinner with gay icon Peter Muller ― architect of the Bali Oberoi and builder of the Kayu Aya Road (a.k.a. Jalan Oberoi a.k.a. Jalur Gaza (Gaza Strip/Gay Ghetto)) ― and his Woolite heiress  wife Carole. I recount how my friend Milo does extensive offerings three times a day in his Seminyak garden home oblivious to the fact that, metres away, Balinese Go-Go Boys in white vinyl harnesses are writhing on the bar counter at Bali Joe.
“Is the same Milo who used to burn up the dance floor at Gado-Gado in the 1980s?” asks Carole, the former Miss Coolangatta Water Ski 1963.
“Times have changed, Nyonya,” I gently remind her as we flick through the programme of rare Bali films from the 1930s being shown at the Amandari tonight. The film festival is courtesy of La Cinémathèque de la Danse. Incredibly rare footage of Indonesia dancers in the 1939s made by of Rolf de Maré, founder of Ballet Suédois, will be shown ( delete “as well”).
One of the films “Goona-Goona” (1930) inspired the Frank Sinatra song “Old Black Magic”; and the term “goona-goona” which remains in the New York inner city parlance for sexual favours.
“Things have not changed that much,” chimes in Carole, the last of the red hot Nyonyas!

 

 



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