When Ishita Malaviya, 24, first paddled away from shore on a surfboard, she had no idea she was the first female Indian surfer in history. In fact, she’s still one of the only women in her country to venture near the water–India sees over 75,000 drowning deaths every year, a heavy deterrent even for those willing to try the sport. Now, she’s hoping her role in “Beyond the Surface“–a new documentary directed by Dave and Crystal Thornburg-Homcy and starring fellow surfers and environmentalists Liz Clark, Lauren Hill, Emi Koch, and Kate Baldwin–will encourage more Indians to get into the water and bring a new wave of ecotourism and hope to her country. We caught up with Malaviya to talk about what she’s been up to recently:
When did you first realize you could possibly be the first female surfer in India?
I started surfing in 2007 with the Surfing Swamis and they were the ones who initially told me I was the first Indian girl to start surfing on home shores, but I just couldn’t believe it at the time. It felt too unreal. Two years later on a surf trip I would find out it was really true. We had decided to travel along the entire South Indian coastline to meet other local Indian surfers. I asked them if they knew of any other girls who had started surfing and they said, “No, Ishita. You really are the first one!”
Why aren’t there more Indian surfers?
We have a very small surf community here in India–just over 100 surfers. I think the reason it’s taken so long to take off here is because there is practically no beach culture. We have a population of 1.2 billion but you’ll find our beaches are totally empty and there are no crowded line-ups.The majority of the population doesn’t know how to swim, which has led to a high rate of drowning cases. Naturally, it’s created a fear of the ocean.
Is that why you founded The Shaka Surf Club, to get people in the water?
It’s a way surfing can have a very positive influence in India. As more people start having fun in the sea and learn to move when it changes, they’ll no longer be afraid and develop a deeper respect and appreciation for the ocean.
What’s your scariest moment in the water?
I’d just finished giving a surf lesson to a first-time surfer and I wanted to catch some waves myself. So I paddled out, but while I was peacefully waiting for a wave, I heard a loud scream and saw our student running out of the water screaming, “Shark! Shark! Get out!” It got me so scared I started paddling for my life and I didn’t even question what he was saying! In that panic I looked back and burst out laughing when I saw it was a dolphin, just minding his own business.
You’re in the process of filming a documentary called “Beyond the Surface.” What’s it like surfing with talent like Emi Koch and Crystal Thornburg-Homcy?
I had the best time surfing with them at my local surf spot! Being the only girl in the Indian line-up, I never had any other girls to learn from when I started. The only connection I had was through surf blogs and surf videos I watched online. It’s a dream come true for me.
What can we expect from the film?
It’s the first surfing/humanitarian documentary filmed in India. In April, we’ll be traveling through southern India. The film will capture our journey as we purse waves and document the ways in which surfing, yoga, and ecological creativity are bringing hope and fueling change for local people.
What do you hope people will take away from the film?
Through the stories we tell in this film, I hope people will be inspired to travel, experience new cultures, set aside differences, and connect with others through our common love for the ocean, and to develop compassion for our fellow human beings and Mother Nature.