Are Indian women surfers ready to conquer the ocean?


The world readies itself to witness surfing as part of 2020 Olympics. Are Indian women surfers up to the challenge or are they still caught in the undertow of societal pressures?

There is no place Vilassini Sundar likes better than the ocean. Once, when the 23-year-old international-level surfer from Chennai was dragging herself and her board out of the waters in Kovalam, a couple of her friends — local fishermen-turned-surfers — nearby joked, “You should bring some of your girl friends along! It would be more fun.”

She sure wishes she could, but the truth is, the number of significant competitive women surfers in India can be counted on one’s fingers.

As we look forward to witness, for the very first time, surfing as part of the Olympic Games in Tokyo this year, Indian surfers are playing catch up with the rest of the world. The surfing revolution in Kovalam, spearheaded by former fisherman Murthy Megavan, has given India some of its finest surfers. Murthy is confident that by Olympics 2024, he will have trained his students well enough to represent the country.

But when it comes to Indian women, the story is different. Most are still stuck at the first obstacle — stepping into the waters.

Are Indian women surfers ready to conquer the ocean?

All on board?

The thriving surfing cultures in Tamil Nadu (Chennai), Puducherry and Karnataka (Mangaluru and Udupi) in particular have produced sportswomen who have gone on to participate and win in national and international competitions such as the Asian Surfing Championships, the Indian Open of Surfing and the Covelong Surf Festival. In fact, Manipal is home to India’s first woman surfer, Ishita Malaviya.

“But if you look at the competitions, for every 250 men, there are 30 women,” says Vilassini. When Auroville-based Suhasini Damian, 28, first took part in a competition back in 2014, the organisers initially were not sure if there were enough girls to make for a separate category. “It made me realise that there were very few girls surfing in India. This motivated me to spread awareness and encourage other girls to embrace this lifestyle and sport,” says Suhasini.

Are Indian women surfers ready to conquer the ocean?

At the Kallialay Surf School, near Puducherry, where she trained, Suhasini was the only girl competing. The story is much the same for Vilassini. The reason, she believes, is that most families frown upon women being out in the water.

“They worry that their daughters’ skin will get tanned in the sun, or the salty water will damage the hair. The girl will then not be ‘marriageable’,” she says. Incidentally, Anusha Swamy is smashing those myths — she is a model who surfs regularly.

Then there is the issue of male gaze — wetsuits are form-hugging. Mangaluru-based Sinchana D Gowda has trained herself to ignore this in the past six years. “But you also need to speak out. There have been times men have tried making videos of me while surfing, but not in a good way… They would comment and post these videos with bad captions. So then I talked to the club members and got them to stop,” says the 18-year-old.

Are Indian women surfers ready to conquer the ocean?

Despite obstacles like these, women are choosing to go into the ocean: “I love the freedom I get in the water. I feel like I can be myself, and constantly expect the unexpected,” says Suhasini. This love for the ocean is rare — most city girls are taught to fear it, points out Shrishti Selvam, 22, from Adyar. “That’s the reason the boys from Kovalam are so good at what they do. They were brought up with a love for the ocean, they understand it.”

Nobody understands the importance of this more than Shrishti’s teacher, Murthy. Having successfully trained many fishermen in surfing, he has been actively trying to get more girls from the fishing village into the scene. “I haven’t had much success so far. Families don’t want their daughters out in the ocean. But there is an eight-year-old girl, Monashree, who skateboards and is now learning surfing too,” he says.

One of the boys

Being one of the few women in a scene full of men helps sharpen their competitive edge, according to Vilassini. She says, “You constantly compare yourself with the men and hold yourself to their standards. They too, expect us to perform as well as them and keep pushing us to do better.”

Though she is comfortable with her fellow male surfers, she agrees that sometimes it can be demotivating. Other times, especially while rehearsing at the games, “men dominate in the water, and you have to fight to catch a wave for yourself.”

Are Indian women surfers ready to conquer the ocean?

But for Shrishti, who has just started competing, having seniors like Vilassini and Ishita has made all the difference. “You have someone to look up to. If they can do it, so can you.”

This group of women supporting each other will only increase with the next generation, believes Vilassini. And much of it is thanks to the men: “I have so many young fishermen friends, in their late twenties and thirties, who say that if they ever have a daughter, they will definitely teach her surfing,” she says. Already they are challenging her, albeit in good humour: “You Chennai girls are coming to our village and taking our trophy. But be warned, our village girls will soon outshine you.”

And Vilassini can’t wait for that day.

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Printable version | Jan 19, 2020 1:27:24 PM |

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