Women surfing in India used to be unheard of, until Ishita Malaviya broke out of the old traditions and learned to ride the waves. India’s first professional surfer, Ishita is pioneering surfing for women in India.
Name: Ishita Malaviya Stance: Goofy Home: Manipal, India Years Surfing: 10 Occupation: Professional surfer and co-founder of The Shaka Surf Club, India
Ishita, tell us about how you first got into surfing.
I was born in the big coastal city of Bombay (Mumbai), and ever since I was a kid I’ve always loved the outdoors. Growing up I always dreamed about learning to surf, but just assumed that there were no waves in India and that I would have to travel abroad to start surfing. In 2007 I moved from Mumbai to the small university town of Manipal to pursue my higher studies. It was here that my boyfriend Tushar and I met a German exchange student who had come to India with a surfboard. Through him we met some surfers from California who were living in an Ashram just an hour away. We were super-excited about the possibility of surfing in India and asked if they would be willing to teach us. They were stoked to see that Indian locals were keen on learning to surf and it wasn’t long before we were catching our first waves! I still remember the feeling of riding my first wave – I was smiling all the way to the shore and all the way back home from the beach. I just knew I would be surfing for the rest of my life!
What is it like being a female surfer in India?
For a long time I was the only woman out in water. When I first started surfing I was really weak and would struggle to catch waves. The guys naturally had more upper body strength and would paddle aggressively, so it was definitely intimidating for me at the start. It took a lot of a lot of patience and dedication over the years for me to build my strength both mentally and physically, and earn my respectful place in the male dominated line-up.
I also faced a lot of negative criticism about my skin colour, which got darker and darker in the ocean, and fairer skin is considered to be the epitome of beauty as celebrities are always endorsing skin-whitening creams in the media.
Being the first female surfer in India has not been easy. By doing something so unconventional I had to forge my own path and it has definitely been an emotional rollercoaster. As a young professional surfer, seeking sponsorship was difficult, and for three years I was representing a major international women’s surf brand, but ended up being the victim of a one-sided contract. I was young and naïve, but I learned a lot and came out stronger from the experience.
What are the waves like in India? Are they good to learn in?
India has some really good surf spots. We have 7,500 kilometres of coastline and you can find everything from mellow, longboarding beach breaks for beginners, to fast, barrelling point breaks for more advanced surfers. I think the west coast of India is one of the safest coastlines in the world to learn how to surf on. We have mostly sandy beaches, warm water, and lots of friendly dolphins. You can surf all round the year except during the monsoon season; depending on which coast you’re on.
Is there much of a surf community and is it growing?
When I started surfing back in 2007 there were so few surfers we could count them all on our fingertips. Even now, we have a relatively small surf community here in India. We’re a tribe of a few hundred surfers scattered all over the east and west coasts. It’s an exciting time to be a surfer in India because everybody knows everybody. We’re a family of first generation surfers who, funnily enough, have the joy of pushing our mums and dads into their very first waves! We’ve all had simple surf beginnings, and we each have a unique story to share about how we first started surfing.
“Being the first female surfer in India has not been easy. By doing something so unconventional I had to forge my own path and it has definitely been an emotional rollercoaster”
Although surfing is still in its nascent stages here, we’re already witnessing it becoming a surf industry. Now there are surf schools in almost every coastal state, a few local shapers making custom surfboards using local raw materials, and regular surf contests are taking place. The first few surf contests I participated in didn’t even have a women’s category and I would just have to compete with the men. Now not only do we have a women’s category, parents are sending their kids for surf coaching just so they can compete. So, there’s been a monumental shift in people’s attitude towards surfing. I think surfing can have a really positive impact in India.
Are you inspiring more women in India to give surfing a go?
Yes! Since the day I started surfing it’s always been a dream of mine to get more girls in the water and build a surf sisterhood in India. We have a lot of women, especially from the bigger cities, coming to our surf school, The Shaka Surf Club. We’ve also started a surf program in the local village school, where we have nine girls between 5-12 years old learning to surf with us. It has been really challenging though, since most girls face societal pressures that can prevent them from surfing. I’m trying very hard to change their mental programming by keeping surfing fun and trying to be a positive role model for them. The women’s surf community is definitely growing each year.
Set against the rich hues of India, Beyond The Surface follows Ishita and fellow wave riders Crystal Thornburg-Homcy, Liz Clark, Lauren Hill, Emi Koch.