PHOTO COURTESY: ATITA VERGHESE/SONIA ZIEGLER
Skateboarding is not a sport that actively grabs headlines in India. One has to take a look at our roads and footpaths to understand the paucity of avenues for skaters across the board. But often you come across stories of people who defy all odds to make it happen for themselves and others around them, and one such story is of Atita Verghese, a skateboarder who started her journey in Bengaluru, but today is known around the world for her endeavours to get more girls out there on skateboards.
Featured in the third season of Red Bull’s Skate Tales, Verghese is no stranger to the limelight. She has cameoed in the 2021 Netflix film Skater Girl, has done a Ted talk, and has actively inspired several other girls like her. In 2014, Verghese started Girl Skate India with the hopes to get more girls into skateboarding, and help build a network. As she stated in the episode, “It’s lonely being a girl skater in India because there’s so few of us.”
Although the 29-year-old started skating professionally at 19, she was always used to the skateboard. She said, “I had a skateboard with my sister when we were kids. JJ Jonex made these tiny toy versions of skateboards in the ‘90s, so both of us would sit together, and butt-board it down the streets near my house.”
However, she does wish she had an early start like most pro skaters outside of India. She said, “Most of the good skaters in the West start super young, so when they get to their teenage years they already have years of experience under their belts.” Right now, she is not just the first female professional skateboarder in India, but also became the only sponsored skateboarder (regardless of gender) in the country.Verghese grew up with a supportive mother who always cheered her athletic ambitions. “I played every sport in school and was also a national-level athlete by my early teens. My mother used to take me out to train twice a day and used to have well-planned meals out for me always.”
Verghese credits her interest in skateboarding to the strong skateboarding community that the city of Bengaluru already had. “This is where it all started. With the Holystoked Collective and the first free-to-use skate park which we built together in 2013,” she said.
Verghese calls Bengaluru the mecca of skateboarding in India because it has such deep history and roots in Indian skateboarding. Bengaluru also has Play Arena, a multipurpose sporting complex, which is where Verghese first learned to skateboard. While most cities across India see an empty plot, and build malls or housing complexes, Bengaluru and its people have always given a damn about outdoor sporting activities and the real estate needed to hold them. It is called the City of Gardens for a reason.
Talking about the dearth of more skate parks across India, Verghese said, “In order for your skating to improve, you have to skate on a variety of surfaces, streets, obstacles, skate parks, and spots. In the West, you can push from one place to another and get around on your board. The more time you spend on that board the more you'll improve naturally.” When asked where she would love to skateboard in the future, she said, “I would love to visit Barcelona to hit the streets. The whole city is built for skateboarding and attracts a lot of skate tourism because of this." But also chimes in saying that she would love to go around California just to check out all the different parks and backyard pools they have.
After being a pro skater for close to a decade, Verghese’s legacy is already cemented in skateboarding history. She said, “I think being the first and only female skateboarder for the longest time in a country of 1.4 billion [people] is already an achievement in and of itself.”Today she has a supportive ecosystem around her and more access than before to skating accessories locally as well. More girls are also part of this ecosystem thanks to her. “I guess my biggest contribution would be in bridging the gender gap and making it easier for the younger female skaters to come up and be supported,” she added.
The Highs and Lows
On the flipside, skateboarding is not easy on one’s body, because taking multiple falls attempting to hone a skill is part of the territory. “I’ve recently had two back to back injuries, I broke my pinky finger into 3 pieces last August. That took me about 6 months to recover.”For a skateboarder, not being able to move due to injuries when their lives are so active can mess with their mental health. In her downtime, Verghese likes to brush up on new skills. “When I broke my wrist 2 months ago, the moment the cast came off, I started playing around with mixing music and worked on my skills as a DJ. Being injured is always a great time to learn something new,” she said.
Skateboarding around the world has historically been a boys club. It’s only recently that more companies have started having girls on their teams and showing more representation in the media, followed by equal prize money at contests. “And it's all because of the work we as female skateboarders who care about female skateboarding have worked towards tirelessly for years. It's slowly starting to change but there's a lot more work to be done,” Verghese said.She urges people to support their local girl skaters, and not just as a token. She added, “Representation matters. We need to create role models so that when a girl looks at them doing it, they know it's possible for them too.”
No Skating Around The Gender Issues
Verghese has already left an indelible mark on the skating subculture of India. With Red Bull featuring her in Skate Tales hosted by Latvian skateboarder Madars Apse, there’s bound to be more eyes on the young skateboarder.Speaking about her experience, she said, “The whole team was amazing to work with. It was a co-creation and that’s why they captured our essence so well.She also got to feature alongside American skateboarder Kristin Ebeling. “Her work, words and passion for female skateboarding have been an inspiration for me even before I started Girl Skate India,” Verghese said.
Making a Difference
When you see the girl skaters from around the country come together on video, the joy and their energy is palpable. It’s beautiful to witness the camaraderie these girls share, and the joy that skateboarding brings to them. Some of these girls are shaping up to be the next generation of professional skateboarders, having run away from homes, and sometimes having gone back to their hometowns as heroes, like in the case of Shraddha Gaikwad.When you see Varghese on the skateboard, you know this is where she belongs. Despite her several injuries and setbacks, she has managed to create a niche, and has done it with style. As she herself said, “Skateboarding gives me so much so it's the least I can do by giving back to the community. It's life changing when you can't afford to follow your passion because of financial disadvantages and someone just gives you a board or a pair of trucks.”Follow Navin Noronha on Instagram and Twitter.