Surfing isn’t exactly synonymous with India, but that tide is slowly starting to change.
In the land where cricket is king, and shooter Abhinav Bindra remains the only individual Olympic gold medallist, a woman named Ishita Malaviya is breaking new water.
The 29-year-old is India’s first professional surfer. The country's huge coastline, coupled with its population of over one billion, mean that she boasts enormous marketing potential.
Several high-profile brands and charities have signed Malaviya up to represent them, and this growing influence was recently recognised by being named on the prestigious Forbes 30 Under 30 Asia list.
Overcoming a cultural barrier
Malaviya’s love affair with the water started in 2007 when she met a German exchange student travelling in India.
“It was through him that we discovered an ashram, where the devotees were actually surfers from California. They were surfing at a spot that was only an hour away from us. A small chat and we found ourselves amid the waves,” the Mumbai native told Financialexpress.com.
“I was always an outdoors person and wanted to be in and around nature as much as possible. Surfing enables me to do that. It has changed my life. I just want to surf now and train others who feel the same way.”
Later the same year, the journalism graduate co-founded The Shaka Surf Club - one of the country’s first surf schools - with her partner Tushar Pathiyan in Karnataka, taking up the sport full-time.
Culturally, Indian parents prioritise education above sport, and combined with societal stigmas against sun-tanned, darker skin, Malaviya’s decision was initially met with resistance. However, after witnessing how much happiness the sport gave their daughter, Malaviya’s parents caved to the point where she even taught her mother to catch her first wave!
But Malaviya’s ambition in life is not to win medals and accolades. In fact, she prefers to avoid ultra-competitive surfers in favour of those who simply want to enjoy the waves and promote a healthy atmosphere.
Her mission is to integrate communities through sport, to increase gender equality in sports participation, and to increase awareness around sea safety following several drowning incidents in the area.
“If I still lived in Bombay, I probably wouldn’t have had an opportunity to hang out with a fisherman and his kids, but the beautiful thing about surfing is that it equalises,” she told Vice.
“The kids had this inferiority complex and thought they were cursed to have been living by the ocean instead of a big city. But we wanted them to know how pristine and beautiful their place is, and how they should value it and be proud of it. We wanted to overcome any class divide and make it the coolest village ever.”
In addition to surfing, Malaviya’s club also teaches local kids breakdancing, yoga, skateboarding, and even runs a beach clean-up programme, integrating regularly with the local government school.
While surfing will make its Olympic debut at the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games in 2021, it is unsure whether longboard-specialist Malaviya will compete at them. But given her preference for lifestyle over competition, she will be sliding to the head of the pack either way.
Her focus will be on promoting the positive lifestyle associated with her sport, as well as the reach of The Shaka Surf Club and her other surf business, Camp Namaloha [Namaste + Aloha].
Given her success so far, India may soon be surfing’s next great frontier, and Malaviya could well be riding the crest of the wave.