Surfing On The Surface

Surfing On The Surface

Written by

Prabha Behera

I stepped into a pool for the first time on my first day of middle school, holding onto a paddleboard for dear life and giggling away, waiting for our swim teacher to start the class. And well, as the story goes I drowned, remained unconscious for several minutes and when I came to, I decided to walk away from the pool and never look back.

Throughout my teenage and young adulthood, I have managed to stay safe in my cityscape, away from the deathly hallows of the beach and the ocean.
It was only recently after I started interacting with a lot more athletes, and movement-y people, that the Instagram algorithm decided to expose me to a lot more water sports-based content. A lot of it felt familiar, people diving off cliffs, or jet-skiing off into the horizon, and even parasailing up in the air – but surfing looked and felt new…and alien.

But, why should it have? India boasts a vaaaaast coastline of over 7500 km and rich history of seafaring. Our oceans also see some great waves, especially during the pre-monsoon and monsoon seasons. And surely, if we can ride banana boats, we can surf, right?

I guess what was most surprising was the sheer amount of people engaging in it. I wouldn’t call the surfing community in India huge, by any account. But, it’s still a sizable amount. There are over 11 surf schools in India, spanning across the coastline inviting tourists and locals to try their hand at conquering the waves all year round. India also hosts multiple meets, workshops and surf competitions throughout the year.

Wanting to learn more about India’s surf culture, we sat down with some pioneers of the surfing communities in India and asked them about surfboards, swimming, conservation, and all things surf.

Partha Varanashi, Aquatic Educator And Sustainable Farmer

#1 Surf Song: Miles Away – Years Around The Sun
Partha first became friends with the ocean at the tender age of 6 when he accompanied his father to the beach to body surf. He started competitive swimming shortly after and maintained this affinity for water. However, it was much later that he caught his first real wave on a surfboard, as a 22-year-old in Midleton, South Australia. Having been bitten by the surf bug, he brought his surfboard back home to India and set out to catch his first Indian current in 2012.

He recalls the surfing community being a lot smaller at that time. “I think there would have been less than 50 people who could surf in the entire country. Most of them were on the east coast. There were very few surf schools in India – Mantra surf club were the pioneers followed by Shaka Surf club on the west coast of India. East coast had a few more early starting clubs, Kallialay surf club, Temple adventure where the clubs and old-time surfers like Velu and Mukhesh were inspiring many to take up surfing.”
As an aquatic educator and longtime proponent of sustainability, Partha believes that surfing and surf communities bring hope and fuel change for local people and the planet.

“Surfing brings humans closer to nature. People who have been connected with the ocean for a long time have seen the rise in Seawater temperatures. With hurricanes and cyclones bringing about more floods, aquatic education and water safety training has to be a part of everyone’s life for the forthcoming generations. I see surfers playing a major role in preparing our younger generation to learn and adapt to survive future calamities.”
When asked about the future of surfing and water-based activities in India, Partha remains hopeful. “As Indians are learning the importance of being outdoors and also more and more people are learning to swim, I see surfing and aquatic sports picking up in India. Development by the Surfing Federation of India, surf coaches training and many events throughout the year will see this sport reach new heights in the subcontinent.”

Anupama Shivacharya, Calisthenics Coach And Lifestyle Journalist

#1 Surf Song: Escape – Rupert Holmes
Not one to shy away from the challenge of a new form of movement, Anupama started her recreational surf journey in March 2020 after she wrote a feature on a surf club for The Times of India. “I inherit the adventure streak from my parents who loved taking me on their bike rides and shore visits. Once I realised surfing was an option in India, I couldn’t stop gushing about how exciting it would be to try the sport.”

She didn’t know how to swim when she first started, in fact, she only learned how to swim 6 months into her surfing career. “People assume that one must know how to swim to learn how to surf. This is a myth and social media is helping bring awareness about the sport. Many are afraid of water and unwilling to try it but surfing has helped me read and understand ocean currents better and in the process get rid of my fear of drowning.”

However, although not knowing how to swim is not a roadblock, there are plenty of others, especially for women. Anupama cites the unavailability of quality, inexpensive sportswear as a big challenge. But, the lack of accessibility and funding remains one of the biggest obstacles for women.

“While we have the coast, surfboards are expensive and so are the coaching sessions. We need more scholarships and encouragement to be able to compete and bring the next generation of women athletes to represent India on an international stage. A few Indian-origin sport and nutrition brands are doing a great job by highlighting present-day surfers and encouraging them.”

In the future, Anupama hopes for surfing, and surf communities to get a little more attention, and a chance for Indians to be able to appreciate the long, beautiful coastlines we have through surfing. “I hope the locals will be able to pave a career as surf instructors and athletes. Surfing also exposes people to marine life and conservation. It is a wonderful way to educate people about what measures can be taken for the same.”

Shrishti Selvam, National Women’s Surf Champion 2021

#1 Surf Song: Alai Oda Velaiyadi – based on a famous Tamil song but changed by her friends to make it about their love for surfing.
Shrishti was always drawn to the ocean. She started surfing in the summer of 2015 when she participated in a 5-day summer camp and quickly realised that the ocean was where she belonged. “As soon as I caught my first wave, I knew that surfing would be a big part of my life. The sense of freedom and the feeling of being one with the ocean and nature is what got me hooked.”

There were already different schools, and the ghost of a community when Shrishti started. The greatest talents came from the fishing villages of India, where the knowledge of surfing and the waves came naturally. “With the sponsorship of Mr. Arun Vasu, the sport grew tremendously over the last few years and reached wider audiences through competitions and festivals putting surfing in the spotlight. It was definitely easier for me to take up surfing professionally because of the few first-generation women surfers in India who paved the way. Now India boasts of many talented surfers from different backgrounds, both on the east and west coast.”

Talented, indeed. Shrishti won first place in the women’s category at the Covelong Classic in 2021 at the age of 24. But, it wasn’t all sunshine and rainbows, especially in the beginning, when a big wave and an even bigger wipeout made her question her future with surfing.

“Surfing is one of the hardest sports in the world. It requires a huge amount of commitment and patience. What makes it such a beautiful sport is that every single day is different and that means surfers have to learn to adapt to the elements. As someone who didn’t grow up spending a lot of time by the beach, the biggest challenge was overcoming my fear of big waves. But seeing girls in the water braving it out, definitely made me feel like I could do it too.”

And, she hopes more women are inspired to take up the sport by seeing her and other wonderful women like her out on their boards. “I also hope to see more competitions and support for athletes pursuing the sport. For athletes to grow they need equipment, and travel to various surfing spots and quality training from advanced coaching is vital. I think it would be helpful to have sponsorships from brands to increase the level of competitive surfing.”

Sinchana Gowda, 5x National Surf Champion

#1 Surf Song: It’s Your Life – Francesca Battistelli
A waterbug all her life, Sinchana found herself being called by the water since the age of 3. She found surfing through her swimming coach, Partha Varanashi and his friend who was trying to introduce the world of surfing to younger kids. Feeling the connection with the surfboard instantly, she started her journey with Manthra Surf Club and is continuing as a member of the Mangalore Surf Club.

“When I first started surfing, it had just begun growing in India. There were not a lot of girl surfers and even less support. It’s starting to improve, though. Now, I find it to be quite different as many people come forward and encourage women to do what they love”

Under the guidance of her trainers, Sinchana very quickly became the youngest surfer in India, winning multiple national awards by the age of 15. The road to becoming a National Champion is paved with obstacles, but her passion for the sport and support from her mom helped her not lose track of what’s important.

“Many people came up to me to say ‘you are a girl, you must put your focus on your studies and not on sports which have no scope In the future. But I didn’t pay attention to any of it. My mom was always there with me to support and guide me when I felt lost. And that was more than enough for me to drown out the noise.”

Sinchana also hopes to see more accessibility and funding for the sport in the future.

“We can have frequent competitions and classes for surfing and other water-based activities, and they should be affordable to all. In that way more and more girls and boys can come forward and excel in this sport, which is otherwise pushed away for being expensive. I wish to motivate and encourage all the girls out there to explore their talent in this amazing sport.”

Rakhul Shyamraj, Head Surf Coach, Soul & Surf

#1 Surf Song: Coastline Journey – Mishka
Rakhul grew up far, far away from the ocean, in the mountains of Idukki. But, somehow as he grew out of his teenage years, he felt a yearning for the beach and the waves. “I came to visit my friend at Soul & Surf, Varkala for 10 days. When I saw people surfing I was drawn to the feeling of joy and happiness on their faces and I recognised that happiness comes in waves, and I wanted to try that. Now I have been here for over 10 years and enjoy surfing every day.”

And over these 10 years, he has fallen deeply in love with the ocean and has become the Head Surf Coach at Soul & Surf. “I feel happy that I can make someone’s day better by teaching them and I love to see people have fun surfing and being in the water. It is a great way to start the day.”

When he first started surfing at the age of 21, people would come up to him to ask him where the battery pack and motor for his surfboard were. “Back then Soul & Surf was the only surf school in Varkala. Recently, especially over the last 2 years, many other surf schools have come up. We mostly had tourists from Australia and Europe who’d come to surf here. Now we have many Indian tourists from big cities like Delhi, Mumbai, and Bangalore who come here to try surfing.” In the future, Rakhul hopes to see more appreciation and recognition for the sport. “Traditionally, most Indian people have had a nervous relationship with the ocean and water, never venturing beyond dipping their toes near the shore. I’d like to see more people grow comfortable in the water and enjoy surfing and watersports, and in the future, we can look forward to Indian surfers in the Olympics. I also feel that surfing and being close to the water brings an awareness of conserving and protecting the ocean.”

Ishita Malaviya, First Indian Female Surfer And Co-Founder, The Shaka Surf Club

Born in the hustle-bustle of the big coastal city of Bombay, Ishita wanted nothing more than to move to a smaller, greener, more peaceful place. She dreamed of being by the water and learning to surf but just assumed that there were no waves in India.

“In 2007, I moved to Manipal to pursue my higher education and met a German exchange student who had come down to India to surf, along with some surfers from California. We were super excited and asked if they would be willing to teach us. They were stoked to see Indian locals 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!”

And thus began Ishita’s journey of falling in love with the ocean and surfing. But, for the longest time, she was the only woman out in the water. “I had no coach or other women surfers to watch and learn from. So, I would watch countless surf videos online and taught myself to surf. It was my dream to meet and share waves with other female surfers in my country”

When Ishita first started surfing in 2007, she remembers googling “surfing in India” and seeing no results. “There were so few surfers, we could count them all on our fingertips. Even now, we’re a tribe of a few hundred surfers, scattered all over the east and west coasts, but it’s our love for the sea that brings us together. It’s such an exciting time to be a surfer in India because literally, everybody knows everybody.”

With more and more people starting to surf, she hopes that this spirit of Aloha and brotherhood is never lost and people continue to support one another in and out of the water. “I think surfing can have a really positive impact in India. I like to imagine a day when there will be thousands of surfers in the country, coming from different positions of influence, all working passionately towards a common goal of cleaning up our coastline. I encourage people to surf for its immense potential to bring joy and healing by developing a deep connection with the ocean.”

Much like everyone we spoke with, I, too, am hopeful about the future of surfing and water-based sports in India – when it comes to surfing, we’ve only just scratched the surface.

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