Stoked! Gnarly! Radical! If you’re ever within earshot of these expressions — generally delivered with a guttural, lazy drawl — you’d most likely raise an eyebrow or two.
However, if the deliverer of said expressions was carrying an oblong board of rather large proportions, heading for a beach in a wet suit or board shorts, you might want to reconsider your knee-jerk disapproval: it’s just a surfer being culturally authentic.
There is perhaps no other sport that lends itself to such specific and widely recognisable cultural tropes. They’re lazy, hygienically-challenged, six-pack-owning stoners who renounce all other worldly pleasures for the ritualistic search for the perfect wave.
Whether it’s just stereotype or a set of behavioural rituals meant to enforce a sense of corralled brotherhood, is up for debate. Whatever be the case, you can’t conjure an image of Indians, when you utter the word ‘surfer’, can you?
Yet, earlier this year, the International Surfing Association (ISA), the surfing world’s governing authority recognised by the International Olympic Committee, welcomed India as their 67th member.
New breed of Indians
India and surfing just don’t go together. There’s definitely a cultural dissonance. But there’s also a change in the salty air of Indian beaches, according to Swami Narasingha aka Jack Hebner, the founder of Surfing Swamis — an ashram retreat/surfing school based in Mulki, Karnataka.
“In India, I have seen that the sports scene is really out of balance. In most other countries I have seen that people have a balanced interest in sports and not just one sport. But I also see that young people in India are very different from the people of just one generation before, they are more bold and inquisitive about life and are willing to explore,” he explains.
There was literally no ‘surfing scene’ before Hebner decided to introduce it to our shores. And as gradual as a climb up a sand dune, the sport is catching on. “We’ve trained more than a hundred Indians. But most of the people we’ve trained haven’t continued with the sport; it’s been a one-off thing,” says Rammohan, a member of Hebner’s ashram, an avid surfer and surf photographer.
Surfing in India is still a nascent concept, catering to a tiny niche. For people to actively engage in this sport, they need to have been exposed to a culture of strenuous sport and travel. Most haven’t, but there is a new breed of Indians — who’ve grown up with a more exposed and confident demeanour — who wish to stretch the variety of experience they have access to in this country.
Bharat Padaki, a 29-year-old IT consultant from California is one such person. Back in India on a sabbatical, he got to know about the Mulki retreat from the Iskon campus where he was staying.
“I’ve tried sky-diving and bungee-jumping before, but surfing I place at the top of the list of my favourite things to do. You have to wait for that perfect wave, and till you get one you don’t really realise the power of the wave. And once you’re riding it the adrenalin rush is like no other,” he gushes.
The adrenaline rush
Ankit Somani, vice-president at the Drishti Group which runs H2O, a water sports centre in Mumbai, says, “Ten years ago we had to convince people to get onto boats; nowadays, they’re way more comfortable. The yatching and boating culture has also developed in great leaps and bounds.” The people who go for the more adrenalin generating sports like parasailing and jet-skiing, however, are young school and college kids from affluent backgrounds, adds Somani.
Sociologist Shiv Visvanathan has an insight into this recent phenomenon. “As the elite multiply, the normal range of experience is not satisfying to them, and they begin to explore more avenues. So while athletics or sport was purely an extra-curricular activity in our culture, today it is an expression of lifestyle and of personality,” he says.
A surfing board costs Rs18,000 and upwards to own. This, added to the travel expenses and time required to chase waves across the 7,200km of the Indian coastline, makes it an activity that requires some financial cushion.
It’s also an activity that elevates one’s standing in society. To say that you’ve surfed immediately imbues you with a sort of cultural quotient and attitude that few other activities can bestow.
“It’s a sport that blends skill and competency and immediately grants you membership to an exclusive club. So it’s a very attractive proposition for the elite of the country,” adds Visvanathan.
So what is the future of surfing in this country? “The ISA induction is a big step for surfing in India. This will bring more international surfers to India and it will encourage young people in India to check it out and see what is happening on their front door.
The ISA membership will also help with sponsorships from corporates in India,” says Hebner. However, Visvanathan is not convinced it will catch on in a big way straightaway: “The sport is not part of our folklore, it doesn’t have a legend or currency in our culture, so you need to build that up carefully and express it as a part of a desired lifestyle, for it to work.”