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Ishita Malaviya: India’s first female surfer is changing her country’s perception of the ocean

Ishita Malaviya, India’s first professional female surfer and one of the early pioneers of the sport in her country, remembers googling “surfing in India” back in 2007, only for nothing to show up.

When she took up the sport at university on the advice of a German exchange student, Malaviya estimates that there were only 13 professional surfers in India — a drop in the ocean amid what was then a population of 1.2 billion.

In the early days, she and Pathiyan shared one board between them before they started to fix up broken boards from traveling surfers passing through the country.

Ishita Malaviya became a surfing pioneer in India after taking up the sport in 2007.

Back home in Mumbai, their friends and family had doubts about their new pastime.

“People we grew up with, our friend circle, were like, ‘What are you guys doing? You’re wasting your life, you’ve become beach bums.’ They thought we’d lost the plot,” says Malaviya.

“We didn’t have any money. Our parents were like, ‘You can surf but don’t expect us to buy you a board.'”

‘Cursed place’

Malaviya finished her degree in journalism and moved to the coast to focus her efforts on expanding the Shaka Surf Club, which provides lessons, board rentals and accommodation for people of all ages.

Over the years, she has not only seen the sport grow in India — estimating there are now a couple hundred people surfing competitively — but has also witnessed a shift in attitude towards the ocean, particularly among the fishing communities that have taken up surfing.

“They come from generations of people who look at the ocean as just a place of hard work, struggle, income — it’s very transactional,” says Malaviya.

“This is probably the first generation of fishermen in India that are going to the ocean and actually having fun.”

She points to the number of drowning deaths in India — close to 33,000 last year, according to a report released by the government’s National Crime Records Buereau — as a reason people have been reluctant to regard the sea as a place of leisure.

“There’s a major fear of the ocean,” adds Malaviya. “Most of the people don’t know how to swim … for us it was like, they’re living in paradise (but) they look at the ocean like this cursed place, you know?”

Malaviya has been hooked to surfing and its lifestyle ever since she rode her first wave.

At Shaka Surf Club, located in the fishing village of Kodi Bengre on India’s west coast, surfing and skateboarding is free for kids from the village.

Club volunteers also teach activities like yoga, breakdancing, art or theater at the local school — an initiative that started when teachers at the Kannada-speaking school noticed that pupils who had been surfing spoke better English than their peers.

“We would talk to them in sign language and smiles and shakas,” says Malaviya, a “shaka” being a goodwill gesture among surfers meaning “hang loose” or “take it easy.”

“The kids that were learning to surf with us, they picked up English just by speaking to us.”

Boosting representation

Malaviya has gained recognition beyond India’s shores and last year featured on the Forbes 30 under 30 Asia list, alongside the likes of tennis star Naomi Osaka and Chelsea soccer star Samantha Kerr.

“It’s all pretty surreal,” she says. “I live a very unglamorous life, I live in a village, a very simple, peaceful life. But I’m really grateful doing what I do with the story that I have.”

Her story forms part of “She Surf,” a book authored by fellow surfer Lauren Hill celebrating female surfers around the world.

For Hill, who traveled the globe to recount the tales of the most influential female surfers, figures like Malaviya are overdue a spot in the sport’s literary cannon.

“Most of the women I profiled are just women that I respect, admire and have built some sort of relationship with over the last many years,” Hill tells CNN Sport.

Lauren Hill first took up surfing when she was growing up in Florida.

“Mostly they’re women that I’ve surfed with and I just admire their technical proficiency and want to see them recognized for the great athletes and contributors to the culture that they really are.

“It’s still quite rare for women to be included in the fold of endemic surf media. If you consider the fact that women make up around 30 percent of surfers in somewhere like the US, representation looks nothing like 30 percent of surf imagery.

“Especially if you look at the cover of a surfing magazine it’s still incredibly rare to see even one woman land a cover of a mainstream magazine.”

‘Importance of play’

Surfing will take an historic leap next year as it makes its Olympic debut on the Pacific coast of Chiba, Japan.

For competitive surfers, it will be a chance to showcase their sport on a global stage. But it will come with challenges, too.

“You can’t guarantee that you’re going to have surf, that’s just not how it works,” says Hill, who surfed competitively before forging a career as a free surfer — writing and documenting on surf culture and its intersection with topics like feminism and the environment.

“The challenge of surfing, but it’s also the beauty of surfing, is you have to wake up and respond to the happenings in the living world around you. It’s not like almost every other aspect of modern life where you can plan into an uncertain infinity.”

The introduction of wave pools that produce regular, predictable waves away from the ocean have been part of a drive to make surfing easier to schedule.

“A lot of surfers would say something is left out when you have a perfectly mechanized version of a sport or an art that relies on spontaneity and the wildness of the ocean,” notes Hill.

“It’s wave riding … It’s a different discipline, which is interesting too. I don’t think it’s bad, I just think it’s a different expression.”

As the sport seeks to evolve competitively, for someone like Hill it is the simple impulse of deriving enjoyment from nature that will always be surfing’s greatest pull.

“It’s reminded me of the absolute importance of play and how we tend to lose a sense of play in our adult lives,” she says.

“It just helps remind me not to take myself so seriously. You’re in the surf, you’re definitely going to fall down, you’re definitely going to be humbled by the ocean; it’s a powerful force and it is so good at humbling us at every stage of our surfing lives.”

Thousands of miles from the Florida coast where Hill learned to surf, it is the same joy that gripped Malaviya as she caught her first wave 13 years ago.

“Growing up in India, there’s so much pressure put on you generally because the population is just super competitive. And then being a woman, I feel like you are kind of forced to grow up too soon.

“Because of all this pressure — to study and do well at school — that idea of playtime kind of disappeared from my life.

“When I came here and I started surfing, for the first time in a long time I just felt like a kid again.”

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