Lauren L. Hill on the prodigy who is sowing surf culture and is widely recognized as the India's first female surfer
“I have always been drawn to the ocean,” Ishita Malaviya says, her dark eyes scanning the horizon. “I don’t know why, but I always wanted to surf. Ever since I caught my first wave, I knew I was going to be surfing for the rest of my life. Suddenly, everything made sense.”
In 2007, longing for a “more peaceful place,” Ishita uprooted herself from her bustling hometown of Mumbai and moved to Karnataka in India’s southwest to study journalism. “Never in my wildest dreams did I imagine that I would start surfing there,” she recalls in She Surf. Between classes, she happened upon an American expat who taught her and her boyfriend Tushar how to surf.
The pair quickly pawned belongings to get a secondhand board, which they took turns on that first year. Ishita’s long, lanky frame folds in giggling enthusiasm as she recalls her first waves. Her bright smile and effervescence overflow. She is the personification of the perpetually stoked surfer girl. However, her playful nature makes it tempting to overlook the social, religious, and cultural boundaries she has danced to make a life and livelihood as a surfer in India.
Just a few years after catching her first wave, the surf industry snatched her up, with eyes fixed on an emerging extreme sports market in India. The brand Roxy sent her to Europe on her first modeling gig. Ishita was expected to pose in swimwear, even though she had never before worn a bikini in public.
She was being used as the face of a campaign to sell a lifestyle that she hadn’t fully experienced for herself, yet. The bikini is still considered too overtly sexual for more religious or conservative Indians. Many hold mythic fears about the ocean, but those women who dare are expected to swim fully covered. Ishita now wears bikinis all the time, but always tucked discreetly beneath long-sleeved rashguards and longer boardshorts, which have been deemed culturally acceptable swimwear.
In India, as in much of Asia, swimming or surfing or anything that involves being outside is also considered taboo behavior, in part, because of cultural norms that value light skin. Young girls are advised to avoid the sun, not to let their skin get too dark, or else they might not find a suitor. Skin lightening products are pervasive. Ishita says that her relatives often remark on how dark she has become from so much surfing. A professor once laughingly asked, “Have you been working in a charcoal factory?”
This attitude is part of oppressive global beauty myths that provoke women to adhere to impossible standards; women with light skin are encouraged to tan and women with dark skin to stay inside. Ishita is regularly featured in mainstream global media stories as a symbol of defying gender barriers.
She takes it as easy publicity for her business. In 2011, Ishita and her friend Tushar set up the Shaka Surf Club and Camp Namaloha to share surfing with their community and to give aspiring backpacker-surfers a place to commune. They host between 250 – 300 guests per season. The Shaka Surf Club has set its roots deep into the local community. They teach water safety and skateboarding to local underprivileged kids, run beach cleanups to raise awareness about plastic pollution, and work to solve their village’s sanitation problems by collaborating with local families.“
We’ve also started a volunteer program where traveling surfers can stay for a month or so covering their basic expenses for food and accommodation while volunteering to teach English at the local village government school, in exchange for free access to the use of surf club facilities.” The couple has witnessed the power of surfing to overcome class, religious, and gender barriers in their community.
Of her billion countrymen and women, Ishita has put India on the global surfing map. In 2014, she was the focus of the surf-adventure documentary Beyond the Surface. The film brought Ishita’s surfing style to light. Riding her 9'6" longboard on India’s slow-rolling, tea-tinted wavelets, she is full of ease and grace. Smile set, she looks like someone who knows where she belongs.
And the young girls around her see it, too. Their eyes glimmer at the sight of Ishita. How could they not see her as an invincible ocean goddess untamed by the elements or cultural norms? She looks like them and is daring to live outside of prescribed notions of gender.
“The thing I love most about surfing is that it makes me feel like a child again,” Ishita says. “I feel like, as a woman in India, you’re sometimes forced to grow up too soon. Surfing brought back that element of play in my life and gave me a sense of freedom and liberation that I didn’t know I was seeking, but desperately needed. I encourage people to surf for its immense potential to bring joy and healing by developing a deep connection with the ocean.”
Conventional wisdom states that you can’t be what you can’t see. And that’s the real beauty of Ishita Malaviya. She’s writing a new story for women in India by doing what she loves and sharing it widely, even if that means trimming over old stories. Ishita is reweaving a new way of being for women, demonstrating how to gracefully navigate surging swells, be they cultural or environmental.
Celebrate the women who rule the waves through She Surf.