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June 21, 2017

How Skateboarding Has Sparked A Gender Revolution In India

Text by Wyanet Vaz

We interact with the people behind this growing youth subculture that is transforming mindsets…

More than a decade ago I, along with two boys, decided to take inline skating classes. My father took us 10-year-olds to the nearest skating ring where we trained. Both the boys were quick to pick up things. I stumbled, while they raced ahead — and almost gave up when they did a backward crossover. But every time I made an excuse to miss a day of skating, my father didn’t let me. After hours of encouragement I learnt to balance, to bend those knees and glide. And soon, I was with the boys, racing with them, knowing that I could do what they could — and on some days I was even better.

India is home to cricket-crazy masses. But beyond the world of the willow, beyond the glamour of the Indian Premier League and the world cups, there is a rising underground culture that’s expanding daily. Often associated with rebellion, it does not confine itself to boys. Skateboarding has developed as a youth subculture that promotes individualism. It’s an alternative to mainstream sports that doesn’t require formal training and much of the excitement depends on the rider’s creativity.

Shredding The Gap
Ten years ago, Australian skateboarder Oliver Percovich started a gender revolution in Kabul. His 360-degree flips sparked an interest in the kids around him, most of whom were girls. So, in 2007, he began Skateistan — an international award-winning non-profit school that uses skateboarding as a tool for empowerment in war-torn Afghanistan. And, significantly, out of the 800 students that attended it, 45 per cent were girls.

A close observer of Skateistan, Ulrike Reinhardt — a 56-year-old German woman used the sport to disrupt caste and gender biases in a village called Janwar in Madhya Pradesh. She built India’s first rural skatepark in 2015. I get on an early morning phone call with Ulrike. “I got help from a skate-aid NGO who provided the first set of 20 skateboards and helmets. They also connected me to a company in Germany who became our head of construction.” The entire budget to set up the skatepark was around 17,000 dollars. “And I raised this money by asking artists around the world to transform a skateboard into an ‘art board’. I auctioned 19 boards on eBay.” With the new skatepark, Janwaar Castle (that works closely with the government school), Reinhardt blurred the boundaries between the Adivasis and the Yadavs. “If you bring in something like a skatepark and make it open to all, you give kids the right to do anything they want. So there is no wall around, there is no gate, there is nothing. They don’t have to ask for permission,” she explains. The skatepark has a ‘no school, no skating’ philosophy — an innovative method to help decrease the school’s dropout rate in Jaanwar. The kids come for skateboarding; then stay on for education.

Girls First
Rheinhardt tells me that she is currently in Delhi with 17-year-old Asha: “Two years ago when the skatepark was built, we enrolled her in an English course. She learnt the language in four weeks! So, I asked her if she wanted to go abroad to learn better English. Tomorrow we are flying to England. It took us two years to convince her parents to let her go.” What happened with Asha was that she became a role model for all the other kids. She is also the first in the village to have a passport, and it’s a big deal in a place like Janwar, because firstly she’s a girl and secondly, she’s an Adivasi and not a Yadav.

Rheinhardt’s team follows a policy of ‘girls first’ in everything they do. And this is what the community has begun to accept. “There is a boy who is a pretty good skateboarder, and he has a sister. But she has so much work to do at home that she can hardly come to the skatepark. So he helps her with household chores like getting water from the well, so that she has time to skateboard.”

Stoke Yourself Out
One of the early evangelists on the scene in India is Nick Smith. From Brighton, UK, he has been skateboarding since he was 11, and helped set up India’s first skatepark, Sk8 Goa — a private concrete bowl outside his rented home in Mapusa. This was in early 2003. Later he moved to Bengaluru in 2007, and joined Holystoked Collective — an independent organisation that works towards creating a community of skaters, building skateparks and schools around the country (their volunteers helped build the Janwaar Castle skatepark for free of charge). Holystoked has been instrumental in the growth of this movement in India, and was started by Abhishek Belmar, Abhishek (Shakes), Somanna (Somz) and Poornaboadh.

Talking about this ever-growing organisation, Somz says, “We needed someone to push the sport just so that we could have more people to skate with. It was just the five of us in Bengaluru. We were tired of being kicked out of roller skating rinks (which were the only decent concrete flat areas around) because they felt we would be a bad influence on the kids who came there. But we didn’t want to wait for someone to come from abroad to get a new skatepark! In short, we started Holystoked because there was nothing like it in India.”

The collective built Play Arena, India’s first public skatepark, and raised funds to construct a few DIY parks around the country. Some of these have positively impacted communities, and amazing stories of girls taking up skateboarding have emerged. “After building the skatepark in Mahabalipuram, an elfin five-year-old named Kamali Moorthy who lives near it started to skate. She was spotted by skating legend Tony Hawk who posted her picture on his Facebook wall, and her story went viral,” says Somz.

The other success story is that of 13-year-old Mini, a local from Kovalam. She is part of the Sebastian Indian Social Projects (SISP) that helps children take up sport, keeping them off the streets. “She is a small-town girl who is now travelling to other cities with her crew. She rips it up at various competitions and events around the country,” he enthuses.

For Holystoked, there is no end goal. They want to integrate skateparks into the architecture of cities. “We want to have the best skateparks possible. We want skateboarding to be a possible career option. Once these goals are reached there will always be other ideas and by the time these bones are tired there is already the next generation of skaters ready to pick up the torch.”

Paying it forward
It is true — skateboarders look out for their crew. They have an international network of millions willing to help each other in any situation. So when American skater Rob Pontes was diagnosed with ALS last year, it only took him a week to raise more than 30,000 dollars to cover his medical bills. All of it came from skaters through their campaign #RollForRob.

The only rule they follow is paying it forward. Bengaluru-based Atita Verghese dropped out of school in 2012. She received her first board from Holystoked and is today India’s first professional female skateboarder. After setting up Girl Skate India, an all-girls platform that connects female skateboarders, she also organised a 15-day tour with participants from nine different countries. Last December, they embarked on a journey across Bengaluru, Kovalam, Goa and Hampi, and built a skatepark with the help of SISP in Hegde Nagar, Bengaluru. They even received a grant from a German NGO to construct 10 similar skateparks across India and five abroad. She is currently working on a tube in the interiors of Nepal, and her journey can be documented through her Insta story.

Skate for Change
‘People see a girl with a skateboard and they come to watch. Getting people interested isn’t the problem,’ she tells a local Bengaluru newspaper. ‘Sustaining the interest is…seeing it through menstruation, misogyny, cultural and gender constructs.’ And Girl Skate India has been trying to break this glass ceiling. ‘It’s a common sight — a whole bunch of boys and maybe one girl. Until girls see more girls doing this, they won’t believe they can do it too,’ she goes on to explain.

Statistics say that India ranked 136 out of 186 countries in the UN’s gender inequality index as of 2014. A study by the Foundation for Sustainable Development discovered that only 54 per cent of Indian women are literate in comparison to 76 per cent of men. But when girls like Atita, Mini, Kamali and Asha step on a skateboard, they’re breaking gender boundaries.

Change can begin with one person. This incredible sense of empowerment is what drives the community. As the world warms up to skateboarding as part of the Tokyo Olympics in 2020, the guys at Holystoked tell me, “We need boys to interact with girls at a younger age so they learn how to behave and treat women. It helps to break social constructs and ‘rules’ about what girls are not supposed to do.”

Fact book
Film director Sasha Rainbow followed the girls at Girl Skate India and Holystoked Collective around the streets of Bengaluru and filmed them as part of UK band Wild Beasts’ single Alpha Female. Rainbow says, “In places like Afghanistan, Cambodia and India, skating has not been solidified as a male sport and therefore it has made a massive cultural impact. Because of the attitude of intolerance and sexism across the world, I wanted to create a video that celebrates everyone who takes the risk to be themselves.”

The skateboarding ramp at Khar Social is Mumbai’s first. Conceptualised by Impresario Hospitality’s Riyaaz Amlani and executed by skateboarder Nick Smith in collaboration with Red Bull, this is open seven days a week and is free of charge. “It’s great to see kids honing their craft. There is also a sense of gender equality because it’s not like girls or boys skate separately! It’s an individual sport but it gets them together,” explains Amlani.

Vans, the American shoe brand, has been a constant supporter of the sport. One of their initiatives, the Vans Holy Detour, is an annual skateboarding tour that supports the DIY skating culture in India. “At Vans, we like to connect with local skate communities and support and motivate our skaters. It helps the girls stand out and encourages self-expression and an ‘off the wall’ attitude,” says Ankita Bajaj Shankar, of Vans India.

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