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India’s female skateboarders look to break with tradition, empower others, and shatter stereotypes

Atita Verghese, India’s first professional skateboarder, at the Desert Dolphin Skatepark in Rajasthan, India. Photo: Poornabodh via HolyStoked. Sketched by the Pan Pacific Agency.

Highlighted in music video Alpha Female by English band Wild Beasts, the skateboarding craze is sweeping India, and prompting cultural change. India’s first professional skateboarder, Atita Verghese, wants girls to use the sport to break down social barriers, and have fun doing it. Bhakti Mathur specially for the South China Morning Post.

A woman in a pink sari and a gold nose ring glides on her skateboard along the roads of Bangalore, India, as bewildered bystanders look on. Another girl in a denim jacket and wearing a black cap zips down a busy street, also on her skateboard, as she clings to the side of an auto-rickshaw, while a group of young girls and women in kurtas and saris skateboard together on a highway.

These scenes are from the music video Alpha Female by the English indie rock band Wild Beasts, who are challenging gender stereotypes and championing female empowerment in their own unique way.

The video went viral, with more than 600,000 views in a week on BBC World Service. Sasha Rainbow, the film’s UK-based director, wanted to create a video that celebrated women bringing about change.

“Because skateboarding is so new in India, it hasn’t been able to become a male-dominated sport,” says Rainbow.

“Skating is great because it leaves space for the individual to work at their own pace in a social environment and I think in particular that is interesting for young girls – not just to be competitive, but to have fun, fall over, and pick themselves back up, dust themselves off, and do it all over again, for pure enjoyment. I wanted to commemorate this special moment and show that massive cultural change can start with just one person.”

Leading the charge is 25-year-old Atita Verghese, India’s first professional skateboarder, who features prominently in the video. Verghese is the founder of Girl Skate India, an online platform that she started in 2014 to connect and inspire women to skateboard. She holds classes, clinics and tours to teach skateboarding to young girls across the country.

“I wanted more girls to be a part of the skateboard culture in India. I also wanted a girl crew to skate with,” says Verghese, whose friend Abhishek Shakenbake introduced her to skateboarding at the age of 19.

Verghese says she grew curious about skateboarding right after secondary school. “I did not have enough money to put myself through college. I had free time and went with my friend Abhishek to a skate park. He taught me the basics,” says Verghese, who was raised by a single mother. Verghese turned out to be a quick learner, but without her own board (a board costs about US$150) she had to wait for other skaters at the park to take breaks, then ask to borrow theirs. By the end of 2013 Abhishek had a few extra skateboards and Verghese got one of them.

“In 2010 there were less than 10 people skating in India. Now we have a few hundred skaters in a population of 1.3 billion. The streets are crowded and barely skateable. We started a crew to find solutions to problems like these,” says 33-year-old Abhishek, who co-founded HolyStoked Collective, India’s first skate company, in 2013. Since then it has built 10 skate parks in India, offers skateboarding lessons and runs the country’s biggest skate shop.

Verghese joined Holystoked and, together with 40 skaters from around the world, they built India’s first free public skate park in 2013 in Bangalore. They began teaching skateboarding to underprivileged children and gave them lessons in English, maths and photography.

In December 2015, Verghese spearheaded the Girls Skate India Tour, the first of its kind, where an all-female crew of 12 skateboarders from nine countries travelled by bus to four cities.

Their journey kicked off in Kovalam, Kerala, where they conducted workshops for the Kovalam Skate Club, run by Sebastian India School Projects, an NGO that uses skateboarding to encourage dropouts and destitute kids to get back to school.

The school’s policy is, if you want to skate, you have to study.

They also had yoga instructor Roni Tal from Tel Aviv join them on the trip to give lessons to the children. The tour was documented in a short film and Verghese became known internationally.

The trip was Verghese’s attempt to inspire Indian girls to shed their inhibitions and get on the skateboard. “The biggest challenge in India is its society. There’s no escaping the judgments that you constantly battle. Once a girl hits puberty, it is considered inappropriate for her to be seen jumping around outside, especially in rural areas. Parents worry that girls will get bruised and tanned won’t be ‘marriageable’,” she says.

Verghese and the skaters worked with a group of girls aged five to 15. Wearing helmets and knee pads, dressed in kurtas and leggings, the girls watched the skaters glide up and down the curves of a graffiti-covered skate park. They were hesitant at first, but soon got onto the board. They fell many times, but got right back up.

“It’s important to hold their hands and show them what is possible. We learn how to fail and accept failure, and discover that failure is a prerequisite for success,” says Verghese.

One girl in the workshop was Kamali Moorthy (she was four years old in 2015, and is now nine), the only skateboarder from a small fishing village of Mahabalipuram, close to Chennai. Her fishmonger mother, Suganthi, had herself been locked away until the day she was married. After ending her marriage to an abusive man, Suganthi and her brother – a fisherman and a surfer – taught Kamali how to skate, to empower her.

Based on Suganthi and Kamali’s remarkable journey, Rainbow directed a short film, Kamali. The film won the best documentary award at the Atlanta Film Festival in April this year and has qualified for the 2020 Oscars shortlist.

She met the pair a few years earlier while filming Alpha Female.

“I wanted to create a film that celebrates everyone who takes the risk to be themselves. I believe skateboarding is a symbol of going against the grain, standing boldly in front of society and taking ownership of one’s life. Kamali’s mother Suganthi, and others like her, hidden by the walls of their homes, are heroes who should be celebrated for their quiet bravery,” says Rainbow.

According to Verghese, Kamali is carving a new path for girls in her community. “She has an amazing mother who supports her and does not discriminate Kamali from the boys. We need more parents like her.”

Verghese was shocked to be named the first skater in India for Vans, an international skateboarding and action sports footwear and apparel brand. Such companies almost always choose a man to be their top representative. The company flew Lizzie Armanto, one of the world’s top professional woman skateboarders, from California to Bangalore to shoot its ‘2018 Off The Wall’ brand campaign based on Verghese’s work. The two hosted a skateboarding workshop for girls and built concrete skate ramps.
“These girls grew up watching Lizzie’s videos. Meeting her and learning from her ignited dreams in them,” says Verghese.

Armanto taught them a few tricks as they glided up and down the skate park ramps. “My trip to India was an amazing experience on many levels. Being able to spread my love of skateboarding to both girls and boys that otherwise may never be exposed to it is one of the things that continues to drive me,” she says.

Verghese sees endless benefits from skateboarding for women: it improves confidence, co-ordination and concentration, builds strength and most importantly defies gender stereotypes. “Though there’s a long way to go, the movement has momentum and the wheels are in motion,” she says.

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