Meet Ishita Malaviya: India’s First Pro Female Surfer
In the quiet Indian village of Kodi Bengre, admired for its idyllic Arabian Sea coastline, lies the Shaka Surf Club, home to India’s first professional female surfer, Ishita Malaviya.
Ishita Malaviya’s surfing journey began in 2007 at the Manipal University where the Mumbai native studied journalism. It’s here her interest in the traditional Hawaiian water sport was sparked when she encountered a German exchange student carrying a surfboard around campus. Reminiscing about the interaction to DNA India, Malaviya expressed her interest in participating in the sport, but had no idea where to begin, saying “I always dreamed of surfing... but like many others, I wondered where do we have waves in India?”.
Days after her encounter with the German student, Malaviya experienced the thrill of riding her first wave with the guidance of two Californian surf instructors at a nearby temple. The euphoria of riding waves stayed with Malaviya, and she soon started to take weekly surf lessons. The consistent training strengthened her skills hugely, and by 2011 Malaviya earned the prestigious title of ‘India’s first professional female surfer’. The title enabled her compete in surf competitions across India, as well as aiding her travel to surf spots in Sri Lanka, the US, and the Holy Grail of surfing destinations, Hawaii.
Despite her individual success, Malaviya was adamant to popularise the sport on a national level, saying“we just love it so much and basically just wanted to spread the joy of surfing in India and spread the stoke.” So she went about setting up a local surf club in the summer of 2007, the Shaka Surf Club. Along with her partner, Tushar Pathiyan, the 29-year-old still oversees the running of Shaka, which provides a unique surfing experience to tourists vacationing in the fishing village of Kodi Bengre, as well as introducing local kids to the sport.
However, her surf club ambitions didn’t come without setbacks, Malaviya explains “being the first female surfer has not been easy. By doing something so unconventional I had to forge my own path and it has definitely been an emotional rollercoaster”. Malaviya’s own parents were sceptical about her leaving her studies to pursue an unconventional career by Indian standards; “My family was definitely apprehensive at first”, she said, but she knew that to see things differently they would have to experience surfing culture first hand. Eventually, taking her parents surfing helped convince them to support her aspirations.
Becoming India’s first professional female surfer has enabled Malaviya to break both social and gender barriers by turning her passion into a business that benefits the wider community. But, in a country still considered to be widely conservative, western beauty standards and cultural values have prevented females from surfing in the past. In an interview with Polka Café, Malaviya explained that in India “dark skin is not considered beautiful, and so, most women are afraid of getting tanned. I’ve noticed that most parents don’t allow their daughters to surf after a certain age because they are concerned about their attire in the water”. With the country gradually becoming more progressive, Malaviya remains optimistic for the future of women surfers in India; “I think, in the near future, women from bigger cities, who come from more open-minded families will take to surfing and inspire the next generation of women surfers in the country”.
Leaving city life in Mumbai, which she has been accustomed to since birth, to start afresh in Kodi Bengre, Malaviya has no qualms about her decision as she gets to live her dream of catching waves daily, and passing her knowledge of the sport on to aspiring surfers. In a little over a decade, Malaviya has managed to promote India as a global surfing destination. Her dedication to the sport has been rewarded with a sponsorship deal with GoPro, a feature spot on surf legend, Kelly Slater’s Instagram, and the opportunity to create several surf documentaries. She tells CondéNast Traveller “today, we get to live our dream of surfing, being in the waters and make a living out of it. It’s a healthy lifestyle, spending our day at the beach, away from the daily humdrum of a city life and getting to meet people from different parts of the world”. And that really does sound like the dream.
*Quotes from DNA India, PRI and Polka Cafe. Images via Nike, Lonely Planet & Total Surf Camp.