At the first glance, all is calm at the Sasihithlu beach in Western Mangaluru. A local band is singing their rendition of the Pink Floyd classic ‘Wish you were here’, as the crowd, divided into music lovers and food enthusiasts, go about doing their things, oblivious to the gravity of the event that brought them to together-the Indian Open of Surfing 2017.
While the organisers call it ‘baby steps for the future’, there is optimism within the camp that the event will springboard India’s entry into the elite leagues. “I am hoping to find a sponsor to ensure I get the support, technically and financially, to improve my surfing,” says India’s youngest national surfing champion Aneesha Nayak, who like most others in the tournament, is hoping to secure sponsorship deals, while also winning the rights to represent the nation in World Championships.
The second edition of the Indian Open of Surfing has attracted a host of sponsors, with Karnataka government contributing almost Rs 60 lakh, but most lifestyle brands and sporting goods manufacturers are still shying away from sponsoring athletes due to their lack of ‘marketability’.
“The surfers, barring the elite few, haven’t found individual sponsors yet,” said Ram Mohan Paranjpe, Vice President of the Sporting Federation of India. “But surfing presents an opportunity that most other sports don’t. The surfers like to make a statement both in and out of the water. The athletes have an appeal, a fearlessness about them, a charisma… something brands like to associate with. All they need is some exposure,” adds Ram, who is also a Go-Pro sponsored surfing photographer.
More than a sport
For a sport that is relatively new-popular oral accounts suggest Jack Hebner a.k.a the Surfing Swami introduced it in the Indian coasts in early 2000s-surfing and its off-shoot Stand Up Paddle (SUP) event, have seen a meteoric rise in popularity and tournaments today fetch more than 100 participants, mostly from the South Indian coast line of Karnataka, Kerala, Tamil Nadu and Andhra Pradesh.
But a surfing festival is beyond sports for a lot of people involved. The fest is a gathering of people who come to celebrate freedom in all forms. The Indian Open venue is a vibrant space, swarmed by mural artists, skateboarders, slack-liners and ‘Indi’ musicians, and these components have become as much a part of the fest’s attraction as the surfers are.
Samar Farooqui on the slackline.
Though Ram believes they are just an attraction to increase the foot-fall of the event, his mentor, the Surfing Swami, sees more.
“If you look at the origin of these games, they have roots in surfing. Back in my day, we did not have skateboarding or snowboarding but I used to ski. And I can tell you the techniques used were very similar,” says Swami.
Surfing is perhaps one of the few sports where the competition against is oneself and how well you can manoeuvre your body to the nature’s demands. “When you are in the water, nothing matters. You want to be alone, focused on riding the right wave. It is very much an individual sport. So in the evenings we have a bit of fun, listen to music and bond over,” says Janis, a surfer from Golden Beach Australia, currently helping his surfing friends set up a school in Tamil Nadu.
And slackliner Samar Farooqui, who travelled from Mumbai to take part in the festival, agrees with the surfers. “Essentially, all these sports are about balancing your body and mind. When you are on the board it is about adjusting your body to ride the wave. Similarly, on the line, we balance our body weight,” points out Farooqui, who also believes ‘non mainstream’ sports such as surfing or skateboarding, need to co-exist in a country like India to attract the audience.
While surfing is still far away from reaching the popularity levels of cricket or football, the sport has, in its small tenure, aided in shattering stereotypes and breaching class hierarchies.
“When I started, nobody in my family or neighbourhood wanted me to surf,” says multiple-time national SUP champion Tanvi Jagadish. “How could a girl be in shorts? How could a girl afford to be dark-skinned? I had to hide my surfing for a long time from my parents but today I’ve inspired many to pick up the sport,” adds the 17-year-old, with a beaming smile.
Janis, in his time in India setting up a surf school, has seen many celebrities and well-to-do ‘city folks’ hit the beach to learn surfing from the fisherfolks who have already mastered the art. “That is the best part of nature. On the wave, nobody cares if you are rich or poor. It’s just you and the wave,” he said, while acknowledging that the relationship was symbiotic, with the local lads now understanding the importance of education after meeting the celebrities.
While the socio-economic status of the nation might prevent millions from taking up what is still an expensive sport, according to Swami, India undoubtedly has the potential to produce ‘around thousand world class surfers’. “I’ve lived in Bali (Indonesia) and the majority of the population there are Indian immigrants from the yesteryear. If you see them surf, you will understand that it’s in the Indian genes to be successful in the water. I agree a lot of people in this country won’t be able to afford a board or time, but we are definitely capable of having some top talent,” says the surfing hermit, whose association with the country goes back to 1976 when he first travelled to India in the late Hippie era.
A breakthrough year
The 2017 edition of the Indian Open comes at a time when India has started making huge inroads in the world of surfing. In November 2016, Tanvi Jagadish and Sekar Patchai took part in the International Surfing Association’s SUP and Paddle board events. Tanvi, just 17 years old, also won the Bronze medal at the West Marine Carolina Club Stand Up Paddle Board race. Upcoming surfers like Aneesha Nayak and Sinchana Gowda have shown enough to suggest that the future of surfing in India is in great hands.
Surfing as a business enterprise has also seen drastic improvements with the surfing schools such as the Mangalore-based Mantra Surf Club, launching their own apparel brands. Mantra’s Thunder Monkey inspired the vibrant monkeys of Uttar Pradesh who sound like a thunder according to Surfing Swami, who aims to compete with international brands such as Quicksilver by offering similar quality clothing at affordable rates.
According to the officials of the Surfing Federation of India (SFI), the entry of new investors in the surfing scene and the improved support from state governments could help India host a World Championship as soon as in 2018.
The inflow of money will also help the federation send the upcoming surfers on exposure trips, which according Tanvi, will be necessary if Indians are hoping to make it to the big league. “It was very cold when I went to the USA. And I was not used to wearing so much protective suit. I struggled with my paddling,” said the SUP champion on her trip to USA in April.
In Maldives and Andamans, India has accessible and affordable locations to train their athletes and the SFI is already looking into these options to enhance the already impressive athletes. With Surfing being included in the 2020 Olympics and SUP to very likely feature in the 2024 Games, now is the time for India to sow the seeds for a fruitful tomorrow.