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
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