As one leg pushes against the tar road, the board surges ahead. Knees bent, eyes mere slits against the dusty wind’s whiplash on a summer afternoon, and hands moving with the rhythm of balance, skateboarding is more than just a sport for 23-year old Sagar Waghela.
The resident of Dharavi, Asia’s second-largest slum, dropped out of school five years ago because he fell in love — with the streets, the bumps, the board, and the wind in his hair. A known face in Mumbai’s skateboarding circuit today, Sagar goes to great lengths to nurture his passion for the sport. Through an agent in Delhi he has found a few sponsors for his gear, but not much earnings yet.
He practises for hours daily with his crew, Meteoric, hoping for a break, especially now that Olympics 2020 in Tokyo is opening doors to skateboarding. While lack of sponsorship — government or private — is a big hurdle, he has other pressing worries too. “Finding sponsors is tricky, but I am more worried about training for the Olympics, because if I make it, I want to do well. But Mumbai has no training ground, a dedicated space for skateboarding athletes. Lack of practice space is the major drawback for us,” says Sagar.
A city sport
Skateboarding as a sport came into being out of pure chance. In the California of the late ’40s, whenever the sea was calm, surfers took to doing ‘sidewalk surfing’ — skateboarding barefoot on the streets. In the early ’70s, the concept of skateparks had not taken shape yet, and skateboarders used public spaces like the Escondido reservoir, which would later inspire the design of skateparks.
The drought of 1976-77 in California led to swimming pools being drained to conserve water. Legendary skateboarders would court controversy, and possible jail time, by jumping fences, draining pools, and skateboarding on their surface. These youngsters, with the cops hot on their heels, were not only the pioneers of bowl skating, but also gave the sport a reputation for daredevilry.
Primarily a city sport, the concrete parking lots, the park benches, the street bumps are all important accessories to showing off the skateboarder’s skills. In a country like India, where land is scarce and vehicles ride the footpath, a space to skateboard is a tough ask.
Longtime skateboarder Russell Lopez, from Mumbai, was one of the first to leverage social media to spread word and encourage meets. Nearly 25 years ago, when he had set off on a flimsy plywood board with chalky wheels, losing balance and tumbling off, Russell began a love affair that continues till date, as one can unfailingly find him at Khar Social skate ground every Sunday.
He succinctly reasons why skateboarding will take many more years to make its presence felt in India: “Finding a place to meet at and practise in is very difficult. We would visit an abandoned school, but that was a stop-gap arrangement. It is a noisy sport, and when we practised in public parks, the complaints would shut us down. At long last, the Khar Social skatepark came as a welcome breather from the constant hunt for space.”
Pointing out that real estate is highly expensive in any city, and especially so in Mumbai, he says few would be willing to build facilities for skateboarding as it is not a commercial sport like cricket, kabaddi or even badminton. Moreover, the chances of injuries are high in such free-wheeling sports, and that serves as a dampener too.
The rural spin
Nascent efforts to build skateboarding infrastructure have remained just that. Take, for instance, the professional skatepark that stands unfinished in Navi Mumbai. British skateboarder Nick Smith has since 2002 built skateparks across India, including in New Delhi, Goa, Bengaluru, Pune and Mumbai.
“I’ve no clue why the Navi Mumbai project halted, but have been trying to get it completed... it has already consumed well over ₹1 crore of public money,” says Smith, who is considered the godfather of skateboarding in India for helping consolidate the scene. He has now started work on an international-level skatepark in Thane. “This will be the first skatepark of its kind in India, and will hopefully inspire other companies and municipalities to include skateparks in their future plans,” he says.
Not just cities, even smaller towns and villages are the focus of these skateboard evangelists. Abhishek Shakenbake, co-owner of Holystoked, a Bengaluru-based skateboarding collective, has been building skating spots across urban and rural India since 2011. From offering merchandises to training programmes, from functioning as a meeting place for skaters from all over the world, to building skateparks in the interior villages of India, Holystoked does them all. The company came into being after a handful of young men bonded over their shared love for shredding (as skateboarding is popularly called) and hoped to put together meets.
Their rural projects are mostly crowd-funded and, though not as durable as professional skateparks, these basic facilities make skateboarding accessible to all sections of society. “Skateboarding has a positive influence on many youngsters, sometimes helping them battle depression, addiction and poverty. NGOs working with such youth often get them to return to schooling and education, tackle gender discrimination and bring social changes in their lives,” says Shakenbake.
Girls on wheels
At a small village called Janwaar in Panna, Madhya Pradesh, little girls are on a roll at a skatepark built by the non-profit Janwaar Castle, set up by the German-born American Ulrike Reinhard in 2015. Before coming to India, she saw the work of Skateistan, an organisation in Afghanistan that uses skateboarding and education to reach out to youth whose lives have been disrupted by poverty and calamities. Reinhard was inspired to replicate this effort in Panna. Open to anyone wishing to skate, the facility has a girls-first policy. Along the way, the children, and their families, learned the importance of education and gender equality. Girls once relegated to the kitchen started coming out to learn skating, while their brothers helped with household chores.
Additionally, the youngsters gained an exposure that was otherwise beyond their reach. “The children picked up skills from trainers who came from abroad on a voluntary basis, and they now help train others. Many are now passport-holders and have travelled to foreign countries for education or for exposure to the skateboarding culture there,” says Reinhard. Working with other NGOs to set up similar models in more villages, she believes that rather than pushing for change, it was important to factor in local needs and viewpoints to bring about a lasting transformation.
“Skateboarding in the West is all about counter-culture, but in Indian villages, where even basic amenities are lacking, it serves more as a trigger for change. The skatepark has, therefore, been built in the middle of the village, accessible by all, with no boundary walls or guard. It is a community space, managed and run by the children themselves. This way, it became a part of their culture, rather than standing apart,” says Reinhard.
Esha Teware is a 20-year-old Panna resident who has been volunteering with Janwaar Castle for two years now, and has seen first-hand the changes in the children’s lives: “I love teaching them English and being involved in their lives. Under the guidance of Ulrike Reinhard, these kids from a marginalised background have been able to educate themselves, as well as experience life outside India. The visas and funding are organised by her.”
Recently, Asha Gond from the village went to Oxford to do a short course in English; she was followed by two adivasi kids, Arun and Ramkesh, who went to Europe for skateboarding. Ramkesh, a shy nine-year-old, came back with more confidence in his stride. The children experienced the skateboarding culture across Europe, met top athletes, besides visiting world-class skateparks. They were amazed by the street culture in Europe, and one of their most memorable moments involved getting a haircut at a salon and then having it coloured.
Down south, in Thiruvananthapuram, Paul van Gelder faced a different challenge when he set up the Kovalam Skate club in 2014 as a part of Sebastian Indian Social Projects (SISP). “Bringing girls to the skatepark was initially difficult because any outdoor activity is barred for them. Families believe their girls will grow darker in the sun, ruining their chances of marriage, or that the outside exposure may lead to romantic affairs, which were frowned upon. It was difficult to change their mindset but, gradually, we have been able to bring more and more girls to the park,” says van Gelder.
The skate spot is open only to children who attend school. Interestingly, this effort is led by Vineeth Vijayan, a school dropout who self-learnt skateboarding via YouTube videos.
Kamali Moorthy likes to say she started surfing on the waves of Mahabalipuram when she was three. As a baby, she learnt how to walk, surf, talk, skateboard and paint, in that order.
Mermaid in Mahabs
Born into a fisherman’s family, she would be out on the ocean with her uncle, Santosh, learning to glide over swooping waves even before she learnt her swimming strokes. Today the eight-year-old is a student of St Mary’s in this seaside tourist town in Tamil Nadu. The walls of her home are dotted with paintings of cheery sunny skies, pointy green hills and the beach, and drawings of gods, flowers and random animals... all made by her. The family’s small beachside homestay has hosted surfers from around the world, and it was a chance meeting with Aine Edwards, an Irish surfer, that changed the little girl’s life. “We’ve explored the depths of the ocean together since she was three. Today she asks me about mermaids, and if I’ve ever met one,” Edwards says, laughing over the phone from Mahabalipuram. A business consultant, Edwards recently took on the role of Kamali’s agent. At age five, the child learnt to skateboard effortlessly in her colourful frocks, bringing to both sports her own groovy style. “She surfs like she skates and skates like she surfs,” says Edwards, who introduced her to Atita and Jamie Thomas, American professional skateboarders, for training. Today, Kamali is the face of her seaside town’s skateboarding sub-culture. “She’s definitely talented, far beyond her years and her community,” says Atita.
Despite the high expectations, Kamali appears to be a carefree child. “When I grow up I want to skate, surf, paint, do it all!” she says in Tamil, before switching effortlessly into English to say, “I do it because I like it.” Edwards remains hopeful that the child’s sporting success will help other girls in her marginalised community to embark on a “real journey that pushes cultural boundaries”.
Skateboarding as an Olympic sport raises the prospects for funds and opportunities for girls like Kamali, but Atita cautions that there is a flip side. “Skateboarding was never built to be an Olympic sport; it’s a subculture in itself... It was always more beautiful than a competition over who does the best trick.” With winning at the heart of it, the Olympics will end up changing that spirit, she rues.
Sree Sen is a Kolkata-based freelance journalist