Ishita Malaviya, In­dia’s first and only pro­fes­sional fe­male surfer, hopes­more­women will be­gin to take­upthe sport, which she says is truly lib­er­at­ing. By San­jay Pandey

Friday - - Contents -

Ishita Malaviya is In­dia’s only pro­fes­sional fe­male surfer.

It was a balmy Sun­day af­ter­noon and Ishita Malaviya was pad­dling lazily on her surf­board in the warm wa­ters off the western coast of Kar­nataka, South­West In­dia. Near her were a cou­ple of surfers look­ing to catch a wave and ex­pe­ri­ence the ex­hil­a­rat­ing joy of rid­ing it. A lit­tle way away a bunch of swim­mers were thrash­ing around and hav­ing fun.

Sud­denly a man’s shout tore over the wa­ters. “Shark, shark!” he yelled, in­stantly cre­at­ing panic. “A rip­ple of fear ran down my spine,” says Ishita, In­dia’s first and only pro­fes­sional fe­male surfer. Try­ing hard not to panic or make hasty move­ments that might at­tract the shark, she be­gan pad­dling gen­tly to the shore.

“How­ever, a few seconds later I re­gained my com­po­sure and looked in the di­rec­tion of the man who had shouted... only to see a dol­phin play­fully bob­bing up and down in the wa­ters,” says the 24-year-old.

The man had mis­taken the dol­phin’s flip­per for a shark’s fin and had raised an alarm. “It was a re­ally scary mo­ment but apart from that in­ci­dent I’ve al­ways en­joyed be­ing in the sea,” says Ishita, who with her part­ner Tushar Pathiyan runs the Shaka Surf Club in Kodi Ben­gre, Udipi, in Kar­nataka.

When Ishita first picked up a surf­board in 2007, there were barely a hand­ful of In­dian surfers rid­ing the waves. But now, seven years later, in­ter­est in the sport has sky­rock­eted. There are at least a dozen surf schools in the coun­try, which boasts a coast­line of more than 7,000km, large parts of which are still

‘It has al­ways been my dream to meet and share waves with other fe­male surfers in my coun­try’

un­tapped. And Ishita has be­come a cham­pion surfer and the first In­dian ath­lete to be signed to the ad cam­paign for Roxy, the popular Amer­i­can sports­wear brand.

“It’s an amaz­ing op­por­tu­nity to en­dorse Roxy,” she says, re­luc­tant to re­veal how much she was paid.

Ishita is in­deed mak­ing waves – she fea­tures in the in­ter­na­tional doc­u­men­tary Beyond The Sur­face that was screened at By­ron Bay Surf Fes­ti­val, the cap­i­tal of the surf­ing world, in New SouthWales, Aus­tralia in Oc­to­ber. It’s short­listed for over half a dozen doc­u­men­tary fes­ti­vals across the world.

Filmed by award-win­ning cin­e­matog­ra­pher Dave Homcy, it tells the story of Ishita and an in­ter­na­tional team of fe­male surfers in­clud­ing en­vi­ron­men­tal­ist Lau­ren Hill, Amer­i­can di­rec­tor Crys­tal Thorn­burg-Homcy, con­ser­va­tion­ist Liz Clark, hu­man­i­tar­ian Emi Koch, and yoga teacher Kate Bald­win, who travel around South In­dia doc­u­ment­ing the ways in which surf­ing, as well as yoga and eco­log­i­cal cre­ativ­ity, are help­ing lo­cal peo­ple.

As the doc­u­men­tary opens, Ishita says: “The ocean has al­ways been a place for the men, they go to fish at sea and the women stay at home and it’s never been a place for them so nat­u­rally peo­ple are ap­pre­hen­sive about women get­ting in the wa­ter.”

De­fy­ing so­cial norms and taunts – “Peo­ple used to say ‘you will get tanned and dark and no one will look at you if you spend so much time on the beach’” – Ishita de­cided to make surf­ing her ca­reer and she is proud that she has been help­ing bring about change in the ru­ral ar­eas. Ac­cord­ing to en­vi­ron­men­tal­ist Lau­ren, the film is more than “the story of women trav­el­ling to In­dia and meet­ing up with In­dia’s first recog­nised fe­male surfer. It is also the story of how surf­ing is chang­ing lives”.

Ishita, who trav­elled the west coast of South In­dia while shoot­ing the all-fe­male surf­ing doc­u­men­tary, feels hon­oured and im­mensely grate­ful to be part of the project.

“This has been one of the most amaz­ing ex­pe­ri­ences of my life ever,” says Ishita. “When I first started surf­ing, I had no other surfer girls to look up to and watch and learn from. It’s al­ways been a dream of mine to meet and share waves with other fe­male surfers in my coun­try. So this has been a real dream come true!”

Film di­rec­tor Crys­tal says, “In many ru­ral ar­eas of In­dia, women are of­ten not al­lowed in the ocean for a va­ri­ety of rea­sons – their dowry could be af­fected if they are in­jured or the fam­i­lies may not want their girls to have dark skin. But when the women saw Ishita in the ocean that was re­ally eye-open­ing for them. She was break­ing a lot of cul­tural bound­aries and at­tempt­ing to change lives.”

T here’s no doubt surf­ing has changed Ishita’s life. “Grow­ing up in Mumbai, in Ma­ha­rash­tra, I re­ally don’t know why, but I was al­ways at­tracted to the sea,” she says. “I al­ways dreamed about learn­ing to swim and hav­ing fun in the sea.”

But it was only when she was in col­lege that she got a chance to live her dream. In 2007, while in Ma­ni­pal in the neigh­bour­ing state of Kar­nataka, pur­su­ing a course in jour­nal­ism, she met Tushar.

The ad­ven­tur­ous cou­ple were ex­plor­ing the state when they chanced upon the Surf Ashram. Founded in 2004 by Amer­i­can surfer Jack Heb­ner, it is run by a group of surf­ing devo­tees known as Surf­ing Swamis be­cause of the long robes they wear and the tra­di­tional In­dian spir­i­tual cul­ture that they have been fol­low­ing since ar­riv­ing in In­dia in the early 70s.

“We were su­per ex­cited to find out that they were surf­ing just an hour away from where we lived,” Ishita says.

The duo asked the Surf­ing Swamis to teach them the art of the sport, and the Americans, ex­cited to see that a cou­ple of In­di­ans were keen to learn it, will­ingly gave them lessons. Back in the 70s, few In­di­ans – if any – were in­ter­ested in it.

“I still re­mem­ber the feel­ing of rid­ing my first wave,” says Ishita. “It was just mind-blow­ing. I hadn’t had that much fun in a re­ally long time, I felt like a kid again. I re­mem­ber smil­ing a lot and think­ing ‘I am go­ing to do this for the rest ofmy life’.”

For the next two years, Ishita and Tushar learnt to surf by watch­ing videos and pick­ing up tips from the

‘When I started surf­ing I was re­ally weak and strug­gled. Ini­tially I was afraid of the huge waves’

swamis. “We were stu­dents and could not af­ford to spend a lot so we used to share a surf­board be­tween us,” she says.

When one was in the wa­ter, the other would ap­plaud from the beach. “It was great fun and those were some of the best days of my life.”

Learn­ing to surf is not easy but if you have a sup­port­ive in­struc­tor things be­come smoother, Ishita says.

“When I first started surf­ing I was re­ally weak and would strug­gle to catch waves. The guys would pad­dle ag­gres­sively, and it was very in­tim­i­dat­ing be­ing the only girl in the wa­ter. Also, no­body took me too se­ri­ously. Ini­tially, I was afraid of huge waves. I also sus­tained mi­nor cuts and bruises when I hit my­self against the surf­board. But in just a mat­ter of weeks, I learnt to catch a wave and ride it.”

Although the cou­ple’s par­ents did not support their choice of pro­fes­sion ini­tially – “Our par­ents were, like, ‘What is surf­ing? You can surf but don’t ex­pect us to pay for it’” – their club be­gan to gain in­ter­na­tional recog­ni­tion and help was forth­com­ing. “Quick­sil­ver, based in Cal­i­for­nia, one of the world’s largest man­u­fac­tur­ers of sur­fwear, of­fered to support our school,” Ishita says.

Even as they were learn­ing the art of surf­ing, the cou­ple were keen to in­tro­duce more peo­ple to the joys of the sport. “That’s how we set up Shaka Surf Club in 2007,” Ishita ex­plains.

By the time they grad­u­ated in 2010, the club was be­gin­ning to at­tract more and more surf­ing en­thu­si­asts and the duo de­cided to for­malise the club and take up surf­ing as a ca­reer.

Then came the of­fer to model for Roxy. “I still can­not be­lieve I am the only sportsper­son in In­dia who got the op­por­tu­nity to en­dorse Roxy,” says Ishita. “Yes, it was an over­whelm­ing feel­ing to rub shoul­ders with pro­fes­sional mod­els.”

Keen to give back to the com­mu­nity, Ishita and Tushar of­fer surf lessons and wa­ter safety ed­u­ca­tion to tourists and vil­lagers in the area. They have also opened Camp Na­maloha, the first surf camp­site in In­dia. Fac­ing the river on one side and the sea on the other, it of­fers mod­est ac­com­mo­da­tion at the surf spot in the small fish­ing vil­lage of Kodi Ben­gre. Since the school is lo­cated in a touristy area, the club has teamed up with the vil­lagers, who vol­un­teered to pre­pare

freshly cooked lo­cal food for stu­dents and guests. Buoyed by their suc­cess, the surf club plans to spread its wings to other states such as Ker­ala and Tamil Nadu. “The two states have huge po­ten­tial to be de­vel­oped as a surfer’s des­ti­na­tion be­cause of the long coast­line they have,” says Ishita. “A large num­ber of peo­ple in In­dia don’t know how to swim, which has led to a high rate of drown­ing fa­tal­i­ties ev­ery year. Nat­u­rally, this has cre­ated a fear of the ocean in the minds of many. At our surf school, Tushar and I have taught many girls and boys how to swim and to surf. Our reg­u­lar crew in­cludes three young surfer girls from the fish­ing vil­lage we surf in.”

As peo­ple de­velop a bond with the sea, they also be­come con­scious of the en­vi­ron­ment, Ishita be­lieves.


shita’s achieve­ment has at­tracted in­ter­na­tional at­ten­tion and she has been fea­tured in sev­eral mag­a­zines and on TV chan­nels across the world, in­clud­ing the In­dian edi­tion of Vogue. “It feels great to be recog­nised,” she says. “If I had fol­lowed the reg­u­lar route, I would have be­come a jour­nal­ist and wrote about peo­ple who did com­mend­able work in their life. But I de­cided to go against the grain and pur­sue my pas­sion. It feels amaz­ing to be the pi­o­neer of surf­ing in In­dia.” Beyond The Sur­face has been a ma­jor turn­ing point, she adds. “I have a re­spon­si­bil­ity now to be a pos­i­tive role model for the girls in my coun­try so that they may feel em­pow­ered to break free from so­cial bar­ri­ers and daringly chase their dreams. I think surf­ing can be a very pos­i­tive thing for In­dia. For the girls who start surf­ing it’s open­ing their eyes to a whole new world.” Ishita as­pires to rep­re­sent In­dia in in­ter­na­tional surf­ing com­pe­ti­tions and is a mem­ber of 13-surfer team that was formed by the Surf­ing Fed­er­a­tion of In­dia in 2011. Most of th­ese surfers, who be­gan surf­ing in 2001, share a common goal – to make surf­ing an ac­knowl­edged sport in In­dia. “We get waves all year round, ex­cept dur­ing the mon­soon sea­son [mid June to mid Septem­ber],” says Ishita, who has just re­turned from an epic four-month long ad­ven­ture in the US where she got the chance to surf in Cal­i­for­nia, New York and Hawaii. Ishita now chases her dreams with the same vigour and pas­sion as she charges into waves, even if it means wip­ing-out and fac­ing de­feat ev­ery once in a while. “Be­cause I know there’s al­ways go­ing to be another wave com­ing.”

Ishita is proud she has been able to change at­ti­tudes

The film puts women in the spot­light

Ishita says Beyond the Sur­face was an amaz­ing ex­pe­ri­ence

Camp Na­maloha in Ma­ni­pal – life in the slow lane

Ishita is one of the faces of sports­wear brand Roxy

Rid­ing the wave of suc­cess

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