Serious Sisu: Ishita Malaviya
Ishita Malaviya is India’s first professional female surfer. She has been surfing for almost a decade. Ishita was born in Mumbai, and graduated from journalism at Manipal University. She began surfing in 2007 during her first year of university, when she met a German exchange student looking for some surf. She was part of the first Summer Swell Challenge, a surfing event held in Pondicherry, India.
At the age of 22, Ishita and her partner Tushar founded the Shaka Surf Club and moved permanently to Manipal, Karnataka. The pair also run a surf camp called Camp Namaloha. Ishita dedicates her time to teaching people about swimming, surfing and water safety. She is a crusader for her local coastal ecosystems, as well as the burgeoning surf scene of India. Ishita is also a new Ocean Ambassador for the French clothing and gear brand Hoalen.
* Shaka is a Hawaiian hand gesture which means to ‘hang loose’ or chill out.
When did you first hear the call of surfing?
I was born in the big coastal city of Mumbai, and ever since I was a kid, I’ve always loved the outdoors. By the time I finished high school I wanted desperately to move to a smaller, greener, more peaceful place. 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 study. It was here that my boyfriend Tushar and I met a German exchange student who had come down to India with a surfboard. And 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.
What did that feel like?
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 knew I would be surfing for the rest of my life.
What did Indian society make of a female surfer taking to the waves?
For the longest 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. I had no coach or other women surfers to watch and learn from. I watched 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 someday. It took a lot of a lot of patience and dedication over the years for me to build my strength both mentally and physically earn my rightful place in the male dominated line-up.
You faced some physical judgment as well
I faced a lot of negative criticism about my skin color. Fair skin is considered to be the epitome of beauty and dark skin isn’t considered beautiful as celebrities continue to endorse fairness and skin whitening creams in Indian media. As I got more tanned, friends and even professors in university would pass comments like, “Oh my God Ishita, you’ve become so dark!” These negative comments were definitely jarring at first, but I have always loved the colour of my skin, so I didn’t let it bother me. But, I know that this is a big issue that keeps other Indian women away from pursuing surfing as they worry they will be considered unsuitable for a job or for a hand in marriage.
As a young professional surfer, seeking sponsorship was difficult since surfing was unheard of in India. For three years I was representing a major international women’s surf brand, but ended up being the victim of a one-sided contract. The Indian counterparts of the brand saw no potential in supporting my surfing. It was the most challenging period for me. I was young and naïve, but I learned a lot and came out stronger from the experience.
What were competitions like?
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. With all the subsequent press surfing has received in the recent years, now not only do we have a women’s category, but a commercial recognition of women having a place in the sport.
How did surfing start to change you and your lifestyle?
Surfing changed my perspective on life and helped get priorities right. It made me realise the importance of living life now rather than later. By the time my boyfriend, Tushar, and I graduated from college, we couldn’t imagine moving back to the city, doing a nine-to-five job and being unable to surf every day. We wanted to live the surfer’s dream and decided to start our own surf school called, The Shaka Surf Club. Initially, our parents were quite apprehensive about our unconventional decision. However, the universe kept sending us signs, showing us we were on the right path and that motivated us to keep following our passion.
What were your parents concerns?
As soon as we caught our first waves, we I knew we would be surfing for the rest of our lives. The year was 2007, and I was in my first year of university, pursuing a degree in Journalism while Tushar was studying to be an architect. It was instant, suddenly everything in our life started to revolve around surfing. Our parents weren’t too impressed. Naturally, they wanted us to focus on our studies and not ‘waste’ too much time at the beach. While they never stopped us from surfing, they refused to buy us a board. Initially, they couldn’t understand that surfing was more than a one-time activity, which we could tick off our bucket-list, but rather, a lifestyle.
What was the process involved in starting a surf school?
In the summer of 2007, Tushar and I decided to buy a surfboard. The price of a second hand surfboard was Rs. 10,000 ($150 USD). As first-year college students with no income, this was very expensive, but we were determined, we basically sold everything we had. Eventually we saved up enough money to buy our very first surfboard. We were so stoked! We shared that board between the two of us for the first two years of our surf lives. We also wanted to share our love of surfing with others, and The Shaka Surf Club was born. Our mission is to get more people in the water and dispel fears by introducing them to the joy of surfing.
We realised we would need more boards, so we started a Facebook page for giving surf lessons and before we knew it, we had surfers and travelers from all over the world contacting us to come and surf with us in India. We started to drive down to the beach and give surf lessons on Sundays.
Were you blazing a brand new trail?
Yes, what started out as a couple of college kids, teaching their friends to surf, eventually evolved into one of the first surf schools in India. The next step was to look for a physical location where we could store our boards right at the beach. By then, the fishermen in the village where we surfed had grown fond of us, as we had started taking their kids surfing as well. So, they pointed us toward an old abandoned bar made of mud walls that was completely run down and hadn’t been used in over a decade. We had no money to rent this place but we saw potential. So we asked the landlord if he would be willing to let us fix up the place and pay him six months’ rent after six months. Luckily enough he agreed. So, Tushar, his brother, all the little village kids and I got together and fixed up the place ourselves – everything from painting, masonry, carpentry, you name it. Ever since then, The Shaka Surf Club has grown organically and transformed into a safe community space where the locals can interact with our visitors from all around the world.
We now also have 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. Camp Namaloha faces the river on one side and the sea on the other and it is a place where our students can relax in between surf sessions. Our surf school is not located in a touristy area, however our neighbours in the village have been super supportive of us and we even work with four families who prepare amazing freshly cooked home-made meals for our students staying at the surf camp.
What was the biggest challenge of setting up a surf business?
Initially it was not having any financial support. Neither of our families comes from a business background so we didn’t have anyone to advise us on how to go about setting up a business. They thought it was a huge risk and would have preferred us to work for a few years before setting up a surf school. So, from the day we bought our first surfboard, we had to figure things out on our own. Surfboards were really expensive as they needed to be imported from abroad. For the first three years, we never paid ourselves. Whatever money we earned from giving surf lessons, we put back into the business. We were happy so long as we were able to sustain ourselves. I think now, our parents couldn’t be more proud as they have seen us work really hard and build our lives from scratch. And ever since I took my parents surfing they have totally fallen in love with it and understand why it means so much to me.
What are the rewards of teaching something you are passionate about?
For the last six years Tushar and I have been coming to this village to surf and it has truly become our second home. Over the years I have tried to get many local girls in the water, but it has been quite difficult to motivate them because of the social pressures they face from their families. Recently we organised a screening of the documentary Beyond The Surface at The Shaka Surf Club and all the young girls, their mums and grandmothers came to watch the film. They all left feeling inspired, but what was amazing was that the next day, we had our first grandmother in the village come surf with us! Sulochana akka, at 65 years old is one radical woman. She has lived by the sea her whole life but had never set foot in the ocean. As soon as she saw the film she told me that she wanted to go surfing. Her husband was apprehensive about her getting in the water, and didn’t think she had the right clothes to wear. But Sulochana akka just needed a little support, and as soon as I held her hand, she started jumping and without one look back, she began frolicking towards the beach! You see, the ocean is mostly considered a place for men. So, it was incredible to watch her big smile as she rode the waves. It was the face of a woman reclaiming her freedom, her childhood and connecting with her wild spirit. She’s become a regular member of our crew now and watching her surf has motivated many of the younger girls to start surfing.
Water and surfing does hold anxiety for many people. How do you handle fears?
I’m always a little afraid when I’m out in the ocean. But I feel that a little bit of fear is healthy as it keeps me humble and aware. However it’s important to not let yourself be limited by fear. Whenever I’m out in scary surf conditions I always take a moment to visualise myself riding the wave perfectly from start to finish. It helps me calm down and believe in myself. Then it just takes about two seconds of courage to commit and just go for the wave!
What is the ‘status’ of surfing in India at the moment?
When I started surfing back in 2007, you could literally Google “surfing in India” and nothing would show up. There were so few surfers, we could count them all on our fingers. 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, 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. 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; from teaching ourselves to surf by riding hand-me-down surfboards left behind by travelling surfers, to fixing our broken boards with duct tape and local resin that the fishermen use to fix their boats. 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 taking place annually. 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.
How has being India’s first professional female surfer changed your life?
Growing up I never in my wildest dreams imagined that I would one day be recognised as the first female surfer of India. It feels strange and unreal but I'm so happy and thankful that this is the path my life has taken. Surfing opened up a whole new world of possibilities for me that I could never have envisioned for myself. The international surf community has shown me a lot of support and welcomed me with open arms. Surfing has given me the opportunity to travel around the world and meet the most amazing people who inspire me to live a healthy and positive lifestyle. More than anything surfing has given me a chance to give back to my community. I feel like I now have a responsibility to be a positive role model to other young girls in my country; to empower and embolden women to not be inhibited by their fears and daringly chase their dreams. At the same time, setting up a surf school in a small fishing village, gives me the opportunity to raise awareness about environmental concerns and contribute towards sustainable development in the area.
What goals do you have for The Shaka Surf Club in the coming years?
The Shaka Surf Club 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. There is practically no beach culture in India. Most people live in fear of the ocean and even if they go to the beach they don’t get in the water as they are unsure how to interact with the ocean. Surfing is that missing link. 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.
Moreover, surfing is an expensive sport and can tend to become exclusive. Knowing how difficult it was for us, we didn’t want the locals to miss out on the opportunity to surf due to financial reasons. Hence our surf school supports the free surfing of all the kids in the village.
As of now we are focusing on developing a sustainable surf + social good model which gives people an opportunity to not only come and learn to surf, but also provides a platform for them to engage with and give back to the local community by sharing their skills in any area of expertise.
In the future we hope to have a Shaka Surf Club in every coastal state in India, based on the similar model, which will be a place where you can meet like-minded people who share your love for the ocean and are contributing to the community in a positive way.