In Wait for the Perfect Wave
Surfing brings with it calm and positivity, and is now becoming popular among India's youth
They say surfing is not just an activity or a sport, it's a way of life. For a surfer, the ocean is home, watching the sunrise is a daily ritual, and living in the moment is their mantra. Every moment on the surfboard is spent waiting for the perfect wave, knowing there's something way bigger than you coming your way, yet mustering up the courage to tide over it. There's a certain calm and positivity that surfing brings out and it is little wonder that the sport is quickly gaining ground among India's young population.
With almost 8,000 kilometres of coastline, the Indian peninsula has ample opportunities for surfing enthusiasts. But it is the international visitors we have to thank, for introducing the sport to India. In the last two decades, surfers from across the world have been visiting Indian shores like Kovalam and Mahabalipuram in Tamil Nadu, Varkala in Kerala and Mulki in Karnataka, looking for challenging seas.
In the process, locals have been introduced to the sport and have now begun to take a keen interest in it. Today, there are 11 surf schools across the country and several regional and national level surfing tournaments are being conducted throughout the year.
Murthy Megavan, a veteran surfer from Covelong Point, Tamil Nadu and founder of the Murthy Surf School recalled his journey, "I grew up in a fishing community. I had to drop out of school due to financial reasons and I spent most of my time in the sea fishing. There was this broken wooden window that I would often use to ride the waves. Once I met a foreigner who lent me his surfboard for ten minutes, and it changed my life. I started dreaming about owning a surfboard. A few years later, another foreigner gifted a surfboard to my neighbour. But my neighbour didn't realise its value, so I saved up, and bought it from him for Rs 1,500. That was my first surfboard. I started practising everyday. People called me crazy. But I had found my life's passion. I introduced surfing to several other kids from my village."
"I later met a German architect named Tobias and through him an Israeli sound engineer named Yotham. These two supported me a lot. Yotham gifted me a board worth Rs 1 lakh, and I gave my old board to the local kids. When Yotham came back to India after a few months, he saw that I had trained ten more surfers. He was so impressed that he made a documentary on me. This gave me the recognition I needed, and I started getting more investors. Today, surfing is my life. I can't survive without my surfboard," added Murthy.
Murthy said, he dreamt of starting his own surf school, "after almost 21 years of surfing, my dream finally came true in January this year. I set up the Murthy Surf School, along with my partner from Kerala. My team has ten instructors, all of whom are from fishing communities here. We have students from the city, from our own village and also from other countries."
According to Murthy, Tamil Nadu and Kerala have produced some of the best surfers in the country today. The current surfing champion at the Indian Open of Surfing, 22-year-old Ramesh Budihal agrees. Born in Goa, Ramesh moved to Kerala when he was just three. His parents enrolled him in a school run by the NGO Kovalam Surf Club, founded by a Belgian to cater to underprivileged children who can't afford private schools.
The school encouraged children to take up activities like surfing and skating. It was there that he was first introduced to surfing and he has been surfing since then. Over the years, he took part in several competitions. He even worked with Murthy for a few years. Ramesh is now an instructor at the Shaka Surf Club in Mangaluru. In 2019, Ramesh reached the semi-finals of the Asian Surfing tour in Malaysia.
Surfing has definitely grown in India. Schools are opening up across the country. It's a big opportunity for people to learn to surf, but it is also becoming more commercialised. It's not easy for athletes who want to compete, especially at international levels. "You need the support of the community, you need sponsors. The minimum cost of a surfboard is around Rs 35,000," said Ramesh, who is hoping to represent India at the Olympics.
The other challenge is that the Surfing Federation of India, although recognised by the International Surfing Association, is not recognised by the Indian Olympic Association. So Ramesh might have to wait for things to change before he can fulfil his Olympic dream.
Tournaments or not, surfing has definitely changed the lives of the people living close to the coasts, especially those in fishing communities. Murthy told The Citizen, "when you're a fisherman, all you do is fish and spend the rest of your time at home. Although children go to school, they don't really learn skills that will help them in the professional world. But surfing exposes you to a whole lot more. Because of surfing, the kids in my village have been able to interact with people from various countries."
The children learnt English and these interactions brought about a huge change in their personality too, said Murthy, "surfing has even enabled them to travel to other countries, which most of them could never dream of otherwise. In fact, for many of them, even travelling to the city would otherwise be very difficult. But most importantly, the exposure has helped them build their confidence."
Surfing has helped bridge the barriers of caste and class and brought people together and instilled a sense of worth in the locals that they have something to teach others. Murthy added that it has also helped keep the children in his village from going astray as they have something to look forward to.
In Murthy's school, students from the village are given free lessons and can use the surfboards for free. The only condition he lays down is that they must refrain from drinking and smoking, and maintain a healthy lifestyle which is required for surfing. Murthy's own kids, now 14 and nine, have already started surfing.
Several boys from the village are now taking part in national-level championships and have been performing very well. Murthy hopes that they will soon be able to represent the country at international championships too.
The sport has been steadily growing in the country, thanks to the influx of tourists and a young population that is more adventurous. Surfers, both professionals and beginners from other countries, prefer the Indian coastlines for several reasons like the absence of sharks. The main reason, however, is that the Indian coastlines are not as crowded as in other countries where surfers populate the shores. So surfers have a more peaceful or spiritual experience here. While in India, they are trained by local trainers, who are mostly from fishing communities.
Surfing has also played a huge role in changing the economy of the fishing villages. With the commercialisation of the sport, entrepreneurs have been investing in restaurants, shacks and festivals on these shores, thereby generating income for the locals. Chennai's annual Covelong Point Surf, Music and Yoga festival is one such festival which has drawn in crowds from across the country and the world for the last several years.
In 2013, Johnty Rhodes was named the Surfing Ambassador for India and that garnered a lot of attention for the sport. Rhodes is now a regular at the festival. The festival also offers a great opportunity to promote local cuisine as well.
Some of the most popular surfing spots in the country are Covelong (Kovalam) in Tamil Nadu, Varkala in Kerala, Kovalam in Kerala, Mahabalipuram in Tamil Nadu, Mangalore in Karnataka and Auroville in Puducherry. The sport is also catching up in Goa, Maharashtra, Odisha and Gujarat.
However, the surfing community in India is still quite small. Only a handful of locals are actively promoting the sport in the country. Most of the people living near these shores are fishermen, and although they have been around the ocean for most of their lives, for them, the ocean meant hard work and livelihood.
Ramesh said it is a really nice change to see people actually enjoying the ocean. However, there is still a long way to go because most Indians don't know swimming and Indian beaches hardly have lifeguards. There is always a fear of drowning when parents think about the ocean.
People like Murthy are trying their best to give back to the ocean, which he refers to as 'his mother'. "I wanted to create awareness about keeping the ocean clean. Every time I train students, I encourage them to first clean their surroundings. We also conduct cleanliness drives and awareness campaigns. First, it was plastics, but now, after COVID, all we can see in the ocean are disposed masks. You won't believe the number of masks that get trapped in fishing nets. We have been creating awareness about this. The ocean is our home and we cannot allow it to choke," said Murthy.
He also uses surfing to help people with mental illnesses. He says the ocean has a therapeutic effect on them, coupled with counselling sessions from experts he has partnered with.
Veterans like Murthy believe that India has a lot to look forward to in the field of surfing. But it needs more attention, as do the local fisherfolk who have helped develop the sport in the country. "The local boys have the skill, but they need the support of the government. But even to approach the government, we need a lot of support. Most other sports in India have well-established associations. We don't. So it's really difficult to be welcomed by the sports authorities," he said.