The skating scene in India is not more than a decade old. In fact, until last year, Atita Verghese, whose Longboard Magazine profile reads as “trailblazer for young female skateboarders,” was and perhaps still is the only woman doing it professionally.
Nonetheless, owing to initiatives by organisations such as the Kovalam Skate Club and projects like Janwaar Castle, skateboarding is now becoming a dominant mode of engaging marginalised communities, especially young girls, to reclaim spaces and introduce alternative modes of mobility in both rural and urban areas. All along, it is helping bridge caste and gender-based differences, while slowly developing into a mainstream sport and art form itself.
And then, there are awe-inspiring individual efforts like the one depicted in Sasha Rainbow’s documentary “Kamali”.
Last week, Kamali Prakash Moorthy’s story swept the Atlanta Film Festival in the US, winning hearts and top honours at the coveted event. It had also picked up the ‘Best Director Award’ at the Mumbai Shorts International Film Festival last year and is already being positioned as a strong contender for the Academy Awards next year.
How to raise a wunderkind
Rainbow’s short film, however, is as much as about the titular nine-year-old skateboarder who is the only girl on wheels in her village, as it is about her mother Suganthi, who has raised Kamali all by herself, against all odds.
Suganthi, 34, sells fishes in the historic coastal village of Mahabalipuram outside Chennai, Tamil Nadu, where the film is shot. After a failed marriage and with the help of her brother’s contacts (he is a surfer), she was able to empower and educate her daughter through skateboarding, determined for Kamali to make history on a plank of wood with four wheels.
For Kamali’s mother, only one thing matters. “I want her to reach greater heights. She should not be like me with limited exposure,” says Suganthi who according to Home grown had spent her childhood confined at home until she was married off to a man who too turned out to be abusive.
Those in her community are not yet accustomed to the sight of a female skateboarder; Suganthi herself admits facing a lot of opposition from her family, regarding the dangers associated with the sport.
“They ask her what will happen if Kamali falls and hurts herself, or breaks anything. They warn her she could be risking Kamali’s potential to marry,” Rainbow tells Qrius over email.††
“I remember being so impressed because she had decided after seeing the Paralympics that even losing limbs doesn’t stop people who are driven and not afraidóthat Kamali should follow her passion and be allowed to play as the boys do. That was when I realised the power of positive storytelling!” the filmmaker revealed.
Girls like Kamali can lead the change: Rainbow
“Kamali’s story represents an incredible moment in India and shows how massive change can start with just one person. I believe Kamali’s mother Suganthi and others like her are heroes who should be celebrated for her bravery. I believe skateboarding is a symbol of going against the grain, standing boldly in front of society and taking ownership of one’s life,” Rainbow said in a recent interview.
Besides displaying her virtuoso on the board, Kamali in the film also talks about how her life changed since she took up the sport historically known to unite people from different sections of society.
At first glance, she is like any other fifth graderóa girl who loves pink dresses and hanging with boys, and goes to school six days a week besides being a role model to her younger brother, Rainbow tells me when I probe her to demystify and situate Kamali as a girl who uses skateboarding to come to terms with her identity.
But she diligently practises on the board every day after homework and over the weekend, unless she is surfing with her uncle, explains Rainbow who’s lived with the family for about a month.
Hailing from New Zealand and currently based in London, Rainbow hadn’t intended to document Kamali and other girl skaters beyond the scope of a music video for British band Wild Beasts’ song ‘Alpha Female‘†which later gained immense†popularity and created a buzz around the ďskating sari girls.Ē
“I had intended to make a documentary about the burgeoning female†skate movement†in India on the side of the video and was interviewing all the girls involved,” Sasha tells Home grown.
“I had seen this photo of this little six year old barefoot girl skating down a ramp in this little dress, referring to Tony Hawk’s viral image of a barefoot Kamali in a white cotton frock, skating like a seasoned skateboarder that became an instant symbol of rebellion. “I knew she had to be in the video,” she says. †
That was the first time Suganthi and Kamali set their foot outside the village.
The film is a stepping stone
According to NDTV, it was Suganthi’s determination, grit and radical vision that fascinated Sasha long after the video shoot was over, compelling her to return and tell the mother-daughter duo’s story to an international audience. It was about “one person breaking a cycle to create major positive change all around them,” the filmmaker said, explaining how Suganthi’s experiences and struggle had moved her to tears.
“The film goes into a lot of detail about Suganthiís childhood and life and the spine of the film compares her journey from childhood to adulthood with Kamaliís life and potential future, which, as you can imagine, is totally different,” Rainbow adds.
The future has exciting things in store for Kamali indeed. Ever since Aine Edwards, a Chennai-based Irish entrepreneur introduced her to Jamie Thomas and Tony Hawk, both celebrated international skateboarders, Kamali has become an internet sensation not only in Mahabalipuram and the south but also among popular skateboarding artists across the world.
With the film, her skills as well as the role she could play in ushering a skateboarding revolution in her village – will get the showcase Suganthi always wanted for her daughter. “Slowly other little girls are watching her and becoming interested in learning,” Rainbow tells me. The community and ramp are quite small and the kids donít have access to many boards, Rainbow informs. “So they all share them together, which is also really special.”
Edwards also told NDTV, “Sasha wants to build a larger skateboarding park in Mahabalipuram,” which Rainbow later confirmed. “If built, this would be a community place for all children and Kamali sure will inspire more girls to take up the sport.”
The future is female, on wheels
India’s diverse skateboarding community has grown more prolific over the years on the backs of professional skaters, social entrepreneurs, multi-national corporations and artists. Once considered an alternative sport, skateboarding is pushing its way into the mainstream with the parallelly growing popularity of hip-hop. In Rainbow’s words, it is certainly blowing up.
More importantly, skateparks today are bustling with young women practising and honing their skills alongside their male counterparts, which Rainbow thinks is because skateboarding being relatively new here isn’t a male-dominated sport in this part of the world.
“The younger generation of male skaters are really encouraging and inclusive. I think thatís really important and exciting,” she tells Qrius “When sports are done right itís about team building and inclusivity.”
Girl Skate India based out of Bangalore, Karnataka, recently concluded a tour featuring international and Indian women trailblazers on the board. Several well-known skating crews like Skate-Aid, Freemotion Sk8 and the one that started it all — Holy Stoked — have contributed to German artist Ulrike Reinhard’s crowdfunding campaign for Janwaar Castle, India’s largest skatepark that has been operational since 2015 and one of the venues for the Girl Skate India tour.
A lot of such parks have come up to compensate for the paucity of practice space as investment and backing from major sporting associations are still missing. Reinhard also notes in an interview with 101 Subway that building such skating rinks at the intersection of rural and urban areas may, in the long run, also alleviate gentrification. So the socio-economic impact of skateboarding needs to be front and centre.
Kerala’s Kovalam Skate Clubstands out in this regard. The organisation provides free equipment and training to underprivileged children and school dropouts hailing mostly from the coastal fishing villages, motivating them with a “no school no skateboarding” programme that has brought truancy in government schools down.
Prominent skateboarding figures like Lizzie Armanto and Brett Novak besides Atita Verghese have come down to give lessons, while reputed footwear brand Vans India has been in a longstanding collaboration with them.
Verghese in her interview with Longboard had rightly said that Kovalam Skate Club which has the highest number of female skateboarders in the country is living proof that when girls are given the environment, encouragement and support, they will come out and shine.
Just as with all other forms of street art like graffiti, hip-hop and breakdance, skateboarding empowers, unites, and breaks down barriers. At the end of the day, skateboarding enables girls to view themselves in a more healthy, confident light which in turn is affecting how others view them.
“Skating is great because it leaves space for the individual to work at their own pace, in a social environment,” Rainbow tells Qrius adding that it engages young girls not just to be competitive, “but to have fun, fall over, and pick themselves back up, dust themselves off, and do it all over again.”
According to the film’s press release, skateboarding is both a zeitgeist for the younger generation and a symbol of freedom and choice for young girls. “We plan to create a fundraiser to support Kamaliís education through to university and arew looking to support an NGO to develop skateboarding in the Indian community for girls,” it further adds.†
With this kind of exposure, investment and moral support, an Indian women’s skateboarding contingent at the Olympics is not so distant a future.
Prarthana Mitra is a Staff Writer at Qrius
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