25 is considered the beginning of life. Most of us are busy giving interviews, getting over heartbreaks, chugging beer on the beach or making donations to the gym while stuffing our face with cupcakes. Wait! Don’t sink into your comfort zone already. I’d like to introduce you to a woman who’ll magically turn you from a couch potato to an eager beaver in mere moments.
Meet Ishita Malaviya—the first and only professional female surfer in India. As much as I wanted to meet her in person, I ended up interviewing this adventurous woman on the phone for half an hour. Ishita sounded like a girl who’d throw caution to the salty sea winds and take life head on with her devil-may-care attitude. Our conversation urged me to pack my bags and set off, because the ocean was calling.
Ishita’s love affair with surfing started seven years ago after she moved from Mumbai to the small university town of Manipal in coastal Karnataka in 2007 to do a course in journalism. “By the time I finished high school, I desperately wanted to move to a smaller, greener, more peaceful place. Growing up, I always dreamed about learning to surf, but I assumed that there were no waves in India and that I would have to travel abroad to start surfing,” she smiles. She and her partner Tushar Pathiyan happened to meet a German exchange student who had come down to India with a surfboard. It was through him that they discovered an Ashram, where the devotees were surfers from California. “We were super excited to find out that they were surfing just an hour away from where we lived and asked these surfers if they were willing to teach us. They were amazed to know that Indian locals were keen on learning to surf and it wasn’t long before we were catching our first waves!” she reminisces.
Ishita and Tushar started The Shaka Surf Club in a small fishing village on the west coast of Karnataka in 2007. They have tied up with local government schools and introduced The Nippers Programme to train the kids to become junior life guards. The duo also organises various workshops at the club with the help of volunteers who visit them. Ishita is a part of Beyond the Surface, the first all-female surfing documentary for India.
How does it feel to earn such a prestigious title at such an impressionable age?
It’s quite unreal. My life story is an inspiration for 1.2 billion people in my country. I’m utterly grateful for the way life has unfolded for me.
How did the men around you react when they first saw you surfing?
When I first started surfing, I was really weak and would struggle to catch waves. Watching the guys paddle aggressively was very intimidating since I was the only girl in the water. Although they were quite supportive, they didn’t take me too seriously back then. It took me seven years to earn their respect.
Kayaking, paragliding, jet skiing—we’ve heard about all sorts of water sports. But surfing in India is still very unheard of. Do you think Indians today are now becoming more aware about taking up surfing as a sport?
India has a very small surf community, just over a hundred surfers. I think the reason surfing has taken so long to take off in India is because there is practically no beach culture here. Since the majority of population doesn’t know how to swim, we have countless drowning fatalities every year. Naturally, this has created a fear of the ocean in the minds of many. I look at surfing as a positive influence. With more people having fun in the sea and learning to move with its changes, they will no longer be afraid and instead develop a deeper respect and appreciation for the ocean. When I began surfing in 2007, we were just 13 of us. Since then, we have had a lot of people coming to our club to learn surfing. We’re hoping the numbers increase in the next few years. These days, people are travelling a lot more internationally and are keen to learn surfing as an adventure sport.
Where do you seek inspiration from?
My surf community—a bunch of conscious, passionate and like-minded people! My biggest inspiration is my dear friend surfer and voyager Liz Clark. I had the privilege to travel with her while filming Beyond The Surface. Liz exudes a one of a kind positivity, inspiring the world to live consciously and mindfully.
To be able to surf is one of my biggest motivations in life. Ever since I began surfing all my life’s decisions have been guided by surfing. It has helped me get my priorities right and realise the value of living my life now rather than later. It has brought so many amazing people in my life who inspire me to live a healthy lifestyle and follow my passion.
You hail from Mumbai but you’ve started your club in Karnataka. Is that because the beaches in Mumbai are so unclean?
It’s so depressing to have a beach but not feel like visiting it! It’s sad to see the entire raw sewage of the city being drained into it ocean. Besides, Mumbai doesn’t have the kind of waves you need to surf.
However, I still believe that surfing is a tool for positive change. Once you begin surfing, you feel one with water and are more aware. It’s the natural respect that comes from within that makes you want to keep your environment clean. Irrespective of the government initiatives, the kids from the village and I do a beach clean-up at Kodi Bengre every Sunday. The beach is our home and this is a ritual that we follow.
As India’s first woman surfer, you’ve not just made our clan proud, but have also broken a lot of crappy notions like dark skin is not beautiful or women should not get tanned. How did you do that?
Although the negative comments didn’t affect me, I was shocked to hear them. The professors in my college said that I looked like I work in a charcoal factory! Since childhood, girls in India are taught to look and dress in a certain manner. Dark skin is not considered beautiful and so most women are afraid of getting tanned. From my experience surfing in the village I’ve noticed that most parents don’t allow their daughters to surf after they reach puberty because they are concerned about their attire in the water and want to limit their interaction with other boys in the community. So many have visited my club, but have given up after two sessions due to the fear of tanning. I want to break these notions and be a role model for these women. Surfing under the sun gives my skin a bronzed glow that is so beautiful!
Do you think taking up surfing will liberate Indian women and encourage them to not just stand up for themselves but also ride more waves?
Surfing is empowering on another level. A sport usually dominated by men, it is physically challenging yet liberating. Today, I feel proud about the fact that I surf better than most men. Being a woman and riding the waves adds a new element to surfing. It took me more than a month to catch my first wave, but once I did that, there was no looking back. The ocean is my playground and it feels good to know that this is what I will be doing for the rest of my life.
You’ve surfed international waters too. How is surfing abroad different from surfing in India?
Surfing has been practiced internationally over more than five decades. If you go to the beaches abroad, you’d notice a mesmerising surf culture—with people bringing boards on their cars, grooving to the surf music and more than 300 people riding the waves. In India, this culture is still very niche. We are the first generation of surfers.
Tell us something about the Shaka Surf Club.
Soon after we started surfing, Tushar and I wanted to share our stoke with others and so The Shaka Surf Club was born. It is primarily a surf school, but we also double up as a surf club for the local kids in the fishing village we surf in. Our main goal is to get more people in the water and introduce them to the joy of surfing. With the combination of providing surf lessons and water safety education, we hope to dispel fears and help people develop a deeper connection with the ocean.
We also provide a place for our students to stay, right at our surf spot in the small fishing village of Kodi Bengre. Our surf camp, Camp Namaloha (Namaste + Aloha) is the first of its kind in India. It is strategically located with the river on one side and the sea on the other. It is a place where our students can relax in between surf sessions. Our surf school is not located in a touristy area, but our neighbours in the village have been super supportive of us and even collaborate with us to prepare freshly cooked homemade food for our students staying at the camp. This gives our students a great chance to not only experience local culture but also interact and exchange ideas with the good folks of Kodi Bengre. We welcome people from all over the world to come and share this unique experience with us. Take a 360° virtual tour of our campsite on: www.viewmyspace.in/shaka/tour.html.
Your favorite places to surf in India?
My home spot of Kodi Bengre in Karnataka, Kovalam, Varkala, Mahabalipuram and Vizag.
Your message to young girls who wish to go against the tide…
A lot of people will tell you why you can’t do something. But make sure you follow your heart and be original.
After listening to Ishita’s inspiring story, I can’t wait to get back to my swimming lessons and start saving money to buy my first surfboard. My next destination is definitely The Shaka Surf Club!
Also, don’t forget to watch her short film A Rising Tide: The India Surf Story here: https://vimeo.com/81026516. The film explores the journey of some of India’s pioneer surfers, their humble surf beginnings and their deep connection with the ocean.