Anton Chekhov and Sri Lanka
In this column, I want to focus on the life and times of Anton
Chekhov and his overarching influence on literature in general and on
Sri Lankan writers in particular.
Anton Chekhov’s 150th birth anniversary was celebrated at the Russian
Centre in Colombo on January 29. The 150th birth anniversary of Chekhov
is not only an important milestone in assessing the lasting legacy of
the master story teller, but also an occasion to reflect how and why he
is still a powerful force on creative writing and drama around the
A lot of water has flowed under the bridge and many changes have
taken place in the field of literature and literary criticism since
Chekhov left the stage of world. Chekhov is considered as one of the
greatest short-story writers of all time. He was also an accomplished
The universal appeal of Chekhov’s work both in the field of short
prose and drama has remained as a live wire around the world. It is
believed that every week one of Chekov’s plays are either staged in
original form or as an adaptation in major cities around the globe.
Life and times of Chekhov
Anton Pavlovich Chekhov was born in the small seaport of Taganrog,
Ukraine on January 29 in 1860. He was a son of a grocer and the grandson
of a serf (slave) who had bought his freedom. Chekhov spent his early
years under the shadow of his father’s religious fanaticism while
working long hours in his store. Chekhov’s life straddled two landmarks
of Russian history. He was born one year before the formal liberation of
the Russian peasantry from feudal serfdom. He died (on July 15, 1904)
months before the first Russian Revolution of 1905.
Chekhov worked for the theatre. His dramas include “Kalhas” (“Swan
Song”,1887), plays “Ivanov”, “Leshy” (“The Wood-goblin”, 1889, was
altered later in the play “Uncle Vanya”), Vaudevilles “About a Harm of
Tobacco” (1886), “The Bear”, (1880), “Proposal” (1888-89), “Anniversary”
(1891-92), “The Seagull” (1896), “Uncle Vanya”, “The three Sisters”
(1901), “The Cherry Orchard” (1903).
The plays such as ‘The Sea Gulls’, ‘Uncle Vanya’, ‘Three Sisters’ and
‘The Cherry Orchard’ are still popular around the world and they are
either adapted or translated into numerous languages including Sinhala.
His farces which Chekhov himself called “Vaudevilles’ such as ‘The
bear’, ‘The Proposal’, ‘A Tragic Role’, ‘ The Wedding’, ‘ The
Anniversary’ and the farcical monologue ‘ Smoke is bad for you’ have
been widely acclaimed and still immensely popular throughout the world.
Anton Chekhov and Sinhala writers
His works such as ‘The Cherry Orchard’ became extremely popular
through translations and adaptations. This play was first translated
into Sinhala by Prof. Mendis Rohanadeera. Martin Wickremasinghe was one
of the Sinhala literati of the day who was influenced by Chekhov’s work.
Wickremasinghe’s short stories and novels which are still widely read
and studied in Sri Lanka have been influenced by Russian literary works
in translations. Gunadasa Amarasekara’s early short stories also reflect
an influence from Chekhov’s work. For instance, Wickramasinghe’s
celebrated literary work ‘Gamperaliya’ which was recently translated
into English and also made into a film by Lester James Peries is in some
respect similar to the theme of Anton Chekhov’s ‘The Cherry Orchard’. In
‘The Cherry Orchard’, Chekhov portrayed the fall of feudalism and the
emergence of capitalism through the ups and downs of a feudal family in
southern Sri Lanka. Martin Wickremasinghe explored a similar theme in
‘Gamperaliya’ but in no way is an adaptation or imitation of Chekhov’s
The fall of Kaisaruwatte Muhandiram (landed gentry) and rise of Piyal
as a successful businessman is not a mere family saga but a depiction of
a historical transition of Sri Lankan society from feudalism to the
emergence of a market economy. Both literary works are in some respect
similar in theme though they are set against diametrically different
backdrops. What is important here is not the fact whether Martin
Wickremasinghe had adapted ‘The Cherry Orchard’ into Sinhala as
‘Gamperaliya’ or not but the fact that Anton Chekhov, as many other
writers of the era had influenced his work.
Like Chekhov, Wickremasinghe also liberally used the technique of
stream of consciousness in his literary works. Considering the
contemporary Sri Lankan Sinhala and English writers, Anton Chekhov’s
role in shaping the form and content of their literary work,
particularly in the genres such as the novel and short story, is felt
today more than ever before.
There is a lot our Sri Lankan writers could learn from Chekhov’s work
before advancing into the use of literary techniques such as non-linear
narratives and application of de-construction, or half understood
theories on post-modernism in their literary works.
Chekhov had a Sri Lankan connection! On his way from a trip to
Sakhalin, Chekhov visited Colombo. During his brief stopover in Ceylon,
he visited Kandy. Martin Wickremasinghe’s booklet, Chekhov Ha Lankava
(Chekhov and Sri Lanka, 1970) provides some useful information on his
brief journey to Sri Lanka. It is well-known that his famous short story
'Gusev' which is set in a ship’s infirmary was conceived on his way from
Colombo to Leningrad in 1890. This story which portrays the thoughts and
interactions of two sick prisoners and the end of their lives provides
deep insights into human life, hopes and despair.
Unfortunately, some of the contemporary Sri Lankan writers’ works
sound more lop-sided and derailed in terms of their narrative techniques
and depth of work. It may be useful for these writers to read and study
Chekhov again and again, to learn the art of realism and how to portray
the nature and complexities of human life.