It's low tide now and the Bay of Bengal off the Ramchandi Beach in Orissa lolls innocently in the near distance. The surfers are back from the waves and, as the action fades at the sea, it picks up on the beach. The first of the day’s many deejays gets busy with the laptop, a group of foreigners toss up ‘full power’ pancakes in a makeshift shack, another works a crowd with his jugglery skills, while one of the members of the Nova Collective, the guys behind the venue’s dramatic nouveau psychedelic vibe, sketches on his notebook. Moby and Manu Chao pour out of the giant speakers and flood the casuarina-shaded, graffiti-strewn party zone. Even the crockery at the buffet spread catches the drift and rattle to the ambient bass lines. The India Surf Festival or ISF (indiasurffestival.com), the first of its kind in the country organised by the Orissa-based Surfing Yogis, has begun to sing and swing.
At the end of the festival, held in the first week of February, eighteen surfers from countries like Spain, France, the UK, Australia, Switzerland and USA turned up at the Orissa beach venue. But what really gave the festival a distinct local zing was the presence of thirty-three Indian surfers, who, by all accounts, are among the first generation of surfers in the country.
Even though surfing is yet to become a popular water sport in the country, these Indian surfers have for years braved the waves in isolation at their ‘home breaks’—the waterfront closest to their homes where they first learned to catch the waves leashed onto their surfboards.
“It is all about surrendering yourself to a bigger force,” philosophises Sanjay Samantaray, the founder of the ISF. Buoyed by the spirit of the first surfing festival in India, Sanjay is plotting his next move: take ISF to other coastlines next year, which will also facilitate the survey and mapping of the surfing potential of India's long coastline.
It is not a passion that has been handheld by the surfing experiences of elder brothers or uncles, for no such previous Indian know-how is known to exist. Naturally, the coming together of surfers from Indian and foreign shores was a reason for collective celebration and mutual back-patting. Justifiably, at a Stand Up Paddle (SUP) surfing race, the boys from Kovalam are egged on by those from Gokarna, the Auroville surfers find support from the Vizag set, the Mangalore and Pondicherry groups are cheered on by the local surfers and everybody provides lung power for the lone girl.
Her name is Ishita Malaviya and she can no longer bear the thought of returning to settle down in her native Mumbai. Ishita’s reputation as India’s first and only full-time female surfer precedes and complements her gleaming ocean-worked complexion and breezy smile. Having studied journalism, the 23-year-old, along with partner Tushar Pathiyan, an architecture graduate, makes her living from giving surfing lessons after having established the Shaka Surf Club at Kodi Bengre beach in Karnataka. On the side, they teach village kids the basics of surfing—“When surfing takes off in a big way in India we want the entire beach community to benefit,” says Tushar.
The wind is up today, but it’s not the kind of land breeze that pushes against the waves and delights surfers. For a moment my mind dwells on a dry piece of leaf caught gorgeously in Ishita’s hair, which is sweeping across her face. But she is talking about a different way of life—“the surfer’s path”, involving daily parleys with the waves, the familiarity with the tides and winds, fresh air, a healthy and active lifestyle and slowing life down.
It is the kind of attitude I find in Anudeep, the surfer from Vizag, who is always eager to share his knowledge and a beach boy smile. Then there is Velu from Auroville, a surfer known to have saved many lives off the coast. Early morning Velu takes two kids to a lagoon close to where the Kushabhadra river bends into the sea. It is the first surfing lesson for the kids—lie flat on the board, push yourself in, stand up slowly, one feet forward, use your arms for balance. And splash. Come on, try again. It’s okay to fall, fail. In life. Or at surfing.