Ramping up the action

Skateboarding is the hot new fun sport that has captured the imagination of India’s urban young, says Aarti Dua

  • Published 17.07.16

It’s a Sunday afternoon and Russell Lopez, 30, is on a roll — literally. “It’s about freedom, about pure joy,” the advertising executive says, jumping up exuberantly with his skateboard in the air performing an “ollie” before flipping around with a kick-turn at a bowl-shaped ramp at Khar Social Skate Park, Mumbai’s first skateboarding park.

Meanwhile, across town in the distant Seawoods suburb of Navi Mumbai, Nick Smith, regarded as India’s godfather of skateboarding, is setting the wheels in motion for more kick-stomping action. He’s building two skateparks here. First, there’s the 250sqm skate-bowl at the NRI Colony. Then, there’s the sprawling over-5,000sqm skatepark he’s building for the Navi Mumbai Municipal Corporation, which will have all kinds of skateboarding features from flow bowls to a pump track.

“It’s like after the monsoons — you sprinkle water on the ground and life springs up. By this time next year, there’ll be five skateparks in Mumbai and then you’ll have way more skaters,” says the British skater, who built
India’s first skatepark in Bangalore in 2010.

Advertising executive Russell Lopez has been nurturing skateboarding in Mumbai since 2010 and has seen the number of skateboarders grow from barely three to more than 5,000 now
LOCATION COURTESY: Khar Social Skate Park

Skateboarding’s no longer an urban sub-culture native to Los Angeles or London. Everywhere now — from Chennai’s Marina Beach to Charminar in Hyderabad and South City in Calcutta — skaters are stepping on the board and embracing the sport’s culture with its camaraderie and cool vibe.

Cut across to Bangalore’s Swami Vivekananda Road Metro station and here the action’s already pumped up. HolyStoked, India’s foremost skateboarding company which has spearheaded the sport’s growth in the country, has built skate ramps here. While two of its partners, Abhishek and Shashank Somanna, put scores of children through their, shall we say, wheels, teaching them tricks on their boards, other skaters are twirling and jumping off the ramps to show off their skills.

Says Abhishek: “When I first started skating in 2010, there were just four-to-five skaters in Bangalore and two-to-three in Mumbai. Now, there must be several thousand across the country.”

The Kolkata Skateboarders group was started by two US social workers with slum kids who they taught skateboarding at an abandoned south Calcutta warehouse
PHOTO COURTESY: Kolkata Skateboarding/Sudhyasheel Sen

Consider this: In the last three years, 15 skateparks have come up across India from Ranchi to Kovalam and even in Janwaar village near Panna. And everywhere, skaters are hitting the streets, turning every feature from staircases and railings to walls and kerbs into obstacles on which to perform their ollies and kickflips. Also, they’re all promoting the sport through Facebook groups like Skateboarding in Mumbai  — or Chennai or Hyderabad.

And the sport’s not confined to the boys either. Last December, Atita Verghese, who teaches skateboarding in Bangalore, took a Girl Skate India Tour with 12 international skaters to Kovalam, Goa and Hampi. They even built a DIY ramp at HolyStoked’s The Cave skatepark in Bangalore.

“I first skated in 2012 and knew immediately this was what I wanted to do in life. It was like doing active meditation because you focused so completely on the board you stopped thinking about everything else,” says Verghese.

Play Arena in Bangalore was India’s first commercial skatepark and effectively started the sport in the country

Or take the Kolkata Skateboarders group, started by US social workers Aaron and Deborah Walling. In 2013, they started using an abandoned warehouse in Lake Gardens into a skatepark where they taught 30 kids from a nearby slum. They returned home last year but skateboarder volunteers like college-going Kabir Guha continue to run the space.

Guha, who took up skateboarding after watching YouTube videos, says: “I was bad at every sport but skateboarding became like comfort food for me because it’s so non-competitive.”

And the skateboard community’s expanding daily. “Many people are interested — maybe because it’s unique or the hipster thing — you’re supposed to have a man-bun and beard,” says Lopez, who’s nurtured skateboarding in Mumbai since 2010.

Nick Smith set the skateboarding wheels turning in India when he built himself a DIY skatepark in Goa back in 2002-03
LOCATION COURTESY: Khar Social Skate Park

When he started the Skateboarding in Mumbai group that year, there were barely three skaters. But he reckons that number’s jumped to 5,000 skaters today. Mumbai even has skate crews like Dharavi lad Sagar Waghela’s
Meteoric and Lopez’s Flippin’ .Awesome. There are also enthusiasts, like engineering grad Hariharan Iyer who drives 85km from Panvel to Colaba for Lopez’s night-skate meets, who are volunteering to build skateparks. “I’ve given two months for the skate-build with Nick,” Iyer says.

The global Go Skateboarding Day on June 21 saw skaters everywhere jam together. In Mumbai, they toured from the new Top Gun skate wall in Panvel to Khar Social to a mall in Kurla. And in Bangalore, the Mecca of Indian skateboarding, HolyStoked had a huge jamboree in Freedom Park.

The sport has also grown with brands like Quiksilver, DC, Vans and Redbull coming in, and also with more skateboards like Oxelo — it’s priced from Rs 3,000 — becoming available.

But it’s the skaters who’re really pumping up the action. In a sense, it all began with Smith — he began skating as a kid in Brighton and has been a professional skateboarder. He built a DIY skatepark for himself while spen-ding a winter in Goa in 2002-03 and “it suddenly became an international skate tourist destination”, he says.

HolyStoked’s Abhishek (in pic) and Shashank Somanna roped in international experts to build ramps like this one in Mahabalipuram and has also built one at Bangalore’s Swami Vivekananda Road Metro
station (below)

Then, a chance train encounter saw him build India’s first commercial skatepark, Play Arena, in Bangalore in 2010. Amith Manohar, vice-president, Play Sports and Adventures, which owns it, says: “We created it because we wanted to promote a certain vibe. Now, lots of kids are taking up the sport.” In fact, Smith says, Play Arena “started the sport in India. There were only a couple of people with skateboards in Bangalore then. But within six months, there were dozens.”

The following year, Smith and four other skaters founded HolyStoked, even building a DIY skatepark with international skaters. They parted ways in 2012, but Smith kept returning with initiatives like the Third Eye Tour in 2013 or building the Khar Social skatepark last year. Now, apart from the two Seawoods skateparks, he’s in talks to build two more parks in Thane and Mumbai city. Plus, he’s opened a skate shop, BRGTON, and founded an NGO, Advaita.

Meanwhile, HolyStoked has been growing the sport by building skateparks, hosting workshops and teaching in schools. So it roped in international skateboarders to build ramps in Mahabalipuram, Goa and Kovalam.

“We’re promoting the scene all the time,” says Abhishek, a law graduate who worked in animation before taking up skateboarding full-time in 2010.Now, HolyStoked plans to expand its existing 3,000sqft The Cave skatepark. And it’s also building skateparks in two DPS schools in Bangalore. Elsewhere, too, skaters like Adnan Jafar and Tribhuvan Kokkula with their Stakeboarding in Hyderabad group have taken up the mantle while Kanpur boy Deepak Shukla launched Skateboarding in Chennai with three other skaters in 2014.

Atita Verghese says skateboarding is active meditation as one focuses on the board and stops thinking about eveything else

“I reached out to other skaters when I moved to Chennai to study engineering. We used to have meets on Marina Beach, jumping down staircases and doing grinds on ledges and benches,” says Shukla, who has just moved to Calcutta.

Skateboarding is also drawing support from other quarters like restaurateur Riyaaz Amlani, who built Mumbai's first skatepark in 2015 at his restobar, Social, in Khar. It’s free. Says Amlani: “Social is about building communities and skateboarding is a vibrant street culture. I love its diversity, it’s not just a rich kid’s world — it’s very accessible. So it’s a match with our brand.”

Or in Goa, DJ Ignatius ‘Iggy’ Camilo got HolyStoked to build a skate ramp at his club-cum-farm, Cirrus, three years ago. “All the village kids love to skate here. I like freedom and I like people to have fun,” he says.

Still, with relatively few skateparks around, most  skaters start with street skating — like Lopez, who remembers how his father got his sister roller-skates for her birthday. “I was nine and threw a tantrum so my dad got me a skateboard,” he recalls. A chance meeting with other skaters saw him form a group in 2010 and they skated on the streets together. “The kids today have YouTube but we learnt it on our own,” he says.

The sport’s drawing everyone from eight-year-olds to young professionals like lawyer Deepika Sekar. “I wanted something to do on weekends when I moved to Mumbai in 2014. So I attended a skate meet and just loved it,” says Sekar. Now, she’s at Khar Social every Sunday. “I feel like a 12-year-old. You’re not supposed to forget how much fun playing is,” she says.

For Aditya Ankam, growing up in a Bandra chawl he never imagined he would “do the cool stuff” he saw rich kids do on their skateboards. Then he got some free sessions at a Quiksilver outlet where he met skater Amardeep Singh and joined the Mumbai group. Now, he’s always “watching YouTube” to “try out new tricks”.

Waghela took up skating as he could not afford a BMX bike. Now, he’s a champion skateboarder, and makes a living from it by performing in events and TV commercials. “I want to compete in the 2020 Olympics when skateboarding becomes an event,” he says.

Of course, the biggest challenge for skaters remains space. They all have stories about being stopped by cops and neighbours. Still, the skaters are confident  more infrastructure will come up. Smith even wants to use skateboarding “to change possibilities” for underprivileged children through his NGO. And Lopez and skater Nikhil Bhonsale want to nurture Olympics-level skaters through their NGO, Skateboarders United Association.

HolyStoked’s Abhishek, too, says: “In the next 10 years, there will be professional skaters in India.” Clearly, the wheels have definitely been set in motion!