When Ishita Malaviya first picked up a surfboard, she could count all of India’s native surfers on her fingers. Now, as interest in the subcontinent’s untouched beaches begins to swell, India’s first, and only, professional female surfer is at the heart of a flourishing scene she hopes can bring real social change to the country.
“I think surfing can be a very positive thing for India,” she says. “For the girls who start surfing it’s opening their eyes to a whole new world. There are so many barriers for them – especially once they reach puberty and their interaction with boys can become very limited – but when they’re in the water it can break down some of those barriers.”
Malaviya, who is sponsored by surfwear brand Roxy and runs the Shaka Surf Club on the west coast of Karnataka with her partner Tushar Pathiyan, first started surfing in 2007 after a chance meeting with a German exchange student at the university she was attending, who had a board.
Now, Malaviya and Pathiyan give lessons to travellers and – most importantly to them – the local villagers in Manipal. Over the new year they opened a surf camp – Camp Namaloha – that they hope will support their work to build a sustainable surfing community that’s shared and enjoyed by Indians as well as tourists.
While the Shaka Surf Club already runs surf lessons and hires boards, the camp now offers a place for visitors to stay in the otherwise remote location, with tents and a beach shelter where travellers can enjoy barbecues and bonfires in the evenings.
Pathiyan is keen to set up a Shaka Surf Club in India’s other surfing states, such as Kerala and Tamil Nadu, and they are also in the process of putting together the first Indian surf team. Last December, with the help of Quicksilver India, the pair released a short documentary: A Rising Tide. It tells the story of surfing in India and features many of the key characters who have contributed to its development.
“Indians are terrified of the sea,” says Malaviya, pointing to the thousands of drownings that occur in the country every year. “But now all the kids in the village surf with us. Before, none of them were even swimming. They’re conscious of the environment and know how to rescue people from the water. That’s the kind of change I want to see.”
Of course, finding ways to get more women into surfing is always something on her mind. “I just couldn’t believe that in a country of over a billion people I could be the first woman surfer,” she says.
“But Tushar and I made a trip along the coast to meet other surfers at all the different spots and we asked if any other girls were surfing and they just said no. It’s very humbling. Now there are other girls surfing, I was just lucky enough to live near the beach so could go a lot; most of the girls don’t get the opportunity to come so often.”
Malaviya, who grew up in Mumbai, was inducted into the surf lifestyle after visiting the Surf Ashram in Karnataka, founded by American surfer Jack Hebner and run by a group of surfing devotees who have since become known as the “Surfing Swamis“.
“We couldn’t afford to stay at the ashram and the lessons were too much for us,” says Malaviya. “But we made a deal with them to bring groups of students from the university in exchange for a group discount. That’s where we came up with the idea of the Shaka Surf Club.”
For the next two years Pathiyan and Malaviya shared one surf board between them, learning to surf by watching videos and picking up tips from the Swamis. “We’d take turns; when Tushar was in the water I’d just sit on the beach and clap,” says Malaviya.
By the time the couple had graduated from university in 2010 they were completely smitten. “Our parents were like what? What is surfing?” says Malaviya. “They said, you can surf, fine, but don’t expect us to pay for it.”
The growing community of surfers in India (Malaviya estimates it is only 200-300 strong, excluding travellers) has steadily been catching the attention of pros from around the world. In 2013, Malaviya was joined by a group of female surfers, including Crystal Thornburg-Homcy from Hawaii, who travelled there to make a feature-length documentary about the scene.
Set to premiere at festivals this spring, the film, Beyond the Surface, looks at the ways surfing can be used to empower women in India and support positive change in the country. “It was very different to what we were used to,” says Thornburg-Homcy. “Women are often not allowed in the ocean for a variety of reasons: such as their dowry can be affected if they are injured or that families don’t want their girls to have dark skin. The cities are a bit different, but this is what we found in the villages,” she says.
Thornburg-Homcy adds: “I think when other women saw Ishita in the ocean that was really eye opening for them. She was breaking a lot of cultural boundaries.”
Both Thornburg-Homcy and Malaviya expect the coming years to see even more growth in the sport in India, as more businesses see the potential in surfing as an attraction for travellers, and more locals head out to the waves.
“I’m not expecting it to become a Bali: we don’t have such epic waves,” says Malaviya. “But I’m just happy with things starting out slow and growing organically. My hope is just that there will always be a nice vibe.”
Kodi Bengre, Manipal
On the west coast of Karnakata, this is the spot where Malayvia and Pathiyan set up the Shaka Surf Club. The beach is a great place to learn to surf, and, if you’re lucky, spot dolphins. “We rent out boards and have been doing a surf camp since Christmas,” says Malayvia. “We’ve got a campsite and one side looks over a river and the other the sea. It’s mainly a spot for beginners, and the waves are normally 3ft-4ft but in the pre-monsoon season the waves can reach 10ft-15ft. Over the monsoon season we close.”
• Shaka Surf Club, Manipala, Karnakta, +91 998 674 2710,theshakasurfclub.wordpress.com
“At this beach town there’s a great place called Soul and Surf which is run by a couple from Brighton called Ed and Sophie,” says Malayvia. “It’s similar to ours in terms of surfing but it gets slightly bigger swells.” Soul and Surf, which opened in 2010, is the first surf and yoga retreat in Kerala. Recently it has been running “pop-ups” in other locations, including Sri Lanka, the Andamans and even Devon, in the UK.
• Soul & Surf, Golden Beach, South Cliff, Janardhanapuram, Varkala, +91 974 641 6953, soulandsurf.com
The Kovalam Surf Club at Lighthouse Beach was founded in 2005 to encourage local children living below the poverty line to stay in education. The main rule for the kids who wanted to participate in the surf lessons was: “No school – no surfing!”. The club also runs a surf school, rents boards and run tours for visitors. “The proceeds from renting boards goes to the project,” says Malaviya. “Its amazing what they are doing.”
• Kovalam Surf Club, Lighthouse Beach, Kerala, +91 984 734 7367kovalamsurfclub.com
Pondicherry, Tamil Nadu
There’s also plenty of surf to be found on the south-east coast of India, with a couple of good places near Pondicherry where there are good waves, with stronger currents “and more barrelling”. The Kallialay Surf School – which opened in 2009 and is one of the first surf schools in the area – is a good place to get your gear and it offers rentals, lessons and courses.
• Kallialay Surf School, Tandriankuppam, Pondicherry, +91 944 299 2874, surfschoolindia.com
Mahabalipuram, Tamil Nadu
Also on the east coast, just south of Chennai, is another surf spot at the village of Mahabalipuram. “This is a very hard point break,” says Malaviya, “but it’s really nice to surf.” The surf shop there is run by a local, Mumu, who was brought up in a fishing family but was introduced to surfing by visiting Australians. He runs a school as well as offering surfboard rentals and repairs.
• Mumu Surf Shop, Mamallapuram, +91 978 984 4191,mumusurfer.wix.com
Story originally published HERE