Tryst with Kerala

Artistic historian: Clifford R. Jones.

Artistic historian: Clifford R. Jones.  


Dr. Clifford R. Jones has been honoured by Kerala Kalamandalam for his research on Kerala’s art and culture.

Way back in the early 20th century, scores of Western artistes and scholars landed in Kerala inspired by its cultural and artistic opulence. Yet only a few identified with the soul of Kerala’s traditional performing arts and its architecturally exquisite Koottambalams. Clifford R. Jones belongs to a small tribe of art historians whose works range from the theoretical to the empirical.

As a ballet dancer, painter, teacher, academic and researcher, Dr. Jones is a multifaceted personality. The California-settled octogenarian scholar revisits Kerala, his home-away-from-home once in a while. For over two months, he has been staying at the Killimangalam Mana, close to Cheruthuruthy, in the company of his friend, Killimangalam Vasudevan Namboodiripad, himself a scholar and lover of art. Without Vasudevan, I wouldn’t have come to Kalamandalam. He was totally accommodating and supportive of my aspirations,” says Dr. Jones.

In recognition of his contributions to Kerala’s art and culture, Kerala Kalamandalam honoured Dr. Jones with the Manakkulam Mukunda Raja Smriti Upaharam.

Glowing recollections

In the 1950’s, Jones chanced upon Kathakali in the United States through an artiste trained at the Kalamandalam. A ballet dancer, he was instantly carried away by the movement culture of this dance drama. Along with his wife, Betty, he flew down to Kerala in the early 1960’s and proceeded to Kerala Kalamandalam, which was then the meeting ground for Kathakali greats. While Dr. Jones took lessons in Kathakali under veteran Kalamandalam Padmanabhan Nair, his wife learnt the rudiments of Kathakali under Kalamandalam Ramankutty Nair and Mohiniyattam under Thottasserry Chinnammu Amma. Jones was at the Kalamandalam when Koodiyattom was added to its curriculum in 1965. He was fortunate to learn the Purappad and several acting techniques of Koodiyattom under Painkulam Rama Chakyar. “In those days, Kalamandalam functioned like a joint family. Nobody then, the Gurus or the sishyas, felt alienated or frustrated. I am so relieved to see that the old campus, after years of stillness, has come alive with training of arts in the day time and performances once in a while in the evening.”

Dr. Jones’ aim was not to further his career with his research and training in the traditional art forms of Kerala. The fact that his doctoral dissertation titled ‘The Temple Theater of Kerala - Its History and Descriptions’ on the Kootambalams in India with special reference to Kerala, remains unpublished speaks of his detachment to power, influence and positions.

His thesis provides an exhaustive account of the design, physical space and architectural exclusivity of the most well known Koottambalams, like the one at the Vadakkumnatha Temple, Thrissur.

The Koottambalams

It examines and describes the plan and architectural structure of the Koottambalams and attempts to establish its place in the continuity of art history in Kerala and South India. Excepting a few pertinent documents, which successive art historians discovered, it was Jones who undertook the task of exploring most of the key records related to the principles underlying the construction and preservation of the Kootambalam.

“When I undertook the study of Koottambalams in the 1960’s, these temple-theatres were in a state of neglect. Now I notice that there is a concern for the upkeep of Koottambalams.”

Dr. Jones himself has designed a small natyamandapam in the main hall of the Kalamandalam building bordering the Nila. The elegantly designed open-air stage on the campus is also testimony to his aesthetic propensity.

In his next transatlantic tour, Dr. Jones plans to renovate both the natyamandapam and the open-air stage besides getting murals painted on the walls of the Killimangalam temple.

Self-restraint is the nucleus of his individuality. Revisits to Kerala seem to rejuvenate the scholar.

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