It is a busy Sunday evening in Bengaluru’s Play Arena. Children of all ages enjoy a rough game of basketball, others climb jungle-gyms, some run in the park. In the midst of all the action, a group of girls on wheels, glide through a graffiti-covered skating rink.
Dressed in helmets, knee and elbow guards, this class of five exudes a sense of cool focus, unlike the children involved in various raucous exertions through the park. Watching them with eagle-eyed concentration is a lanky 23-year-old named Atita Verghese.
Verghese’s short crop of wavy hair is bunched up in a pony tail, her fringe peeking out from under a blue cap as she zooms across the skating rink. A four-year-old watches in awe as she grinds to a stop.
"And, that's how you carve," she said, referring to the clean arc she'd just made across the rink. "It might look complicated but it is all about physics."
Currently a member of HolyStoked Collective, a do-it-yourself group in Bengaluru that promotes skateboarding, Verghese has been a professional skateboarder for the past four years. She has, however, been teaching herself since she was a 19-year-old in Goa.
Verghese is the founder of Girl Skate India, an online community formed in 2014 to encourage more girls to get on their skateboards and expand the community.
“I started GSI to showcase the growth and development of the female skateboarding scene in India,” she said. “The portal hopes to inspire more women to skate or try something new and do what they love.”
This has been the year of victories for women in Indian sports – the 2016 Olympics saw stunning feats by badminton player PV Sindhu, wrestler Sakshi Malik, gymnast Dipa Karmakar, and para-athlete Deepa Malik. But the sport scene in India, remains constrained by socio-cultural barriers for female athletes. Women in sport receive less funding than their male counterparts, have fewer fans cheering them at tournaments, and deal with the additional stress of sexual harassment from coaches and sports committees.
Verghese acknowledges the difficulty of finding girls who skate regularly, and are passionate about getting involved.
“Not many girls can make a living through the sport at the moment so I can understand the lack of participation,” she said. “But that will start to change as more are inspired to quit their day jobs and focus on skateboarding.”
According to Verghese, the gender gap will be bridged through sports.
“It is hard because of the crazy gap in financial distribution in our country and the lack of proper street and park spots for skateboarding,” she said. “The roads are a disaster, the parks are few in number and scattered far and wide. We need more corporate and governing bodies to acknowledge the sport and provide financial aid and space for the betterment of its skateboarding and general future.”
The skate park is a place of freedom for 25-year-old Smita Kommini. She explained how thanks to her skating skills, she has found the courage to try out other sports too. “I have been coming here for the past two years,” she said. “There is always something new to learn.”
Verghese believes there is no end to the benefits of skate-boarding for women: it improves confidence, coordination and concentration, builds strength and, most importantly, defies gender stereotypes.
Twelve-year-old Tanvi Kudari, flushed from the exertion of skating in the concrete pit (which she refers to as the Big Ben), replicates Verghese's moves near perfectly. She has been skating for nearly four years now.
Girls Skate India organised their first tour last January, with 12 girls from around the world. They covered four locations in India – Bengaluru and Hampi in Karnataka, Kovalam in Tamil Nadu, and Goa, teaching girls how to skate and build ramps. The tour was also documented in a film.
Recently, Verghese met Kamali Moorthy, a six-year-old skater and surfer in a village at Mahabalipuram, Tamil Nadu.
“She is carving a new path for the other girls in her community,” Verghese said. “She has an equally amazing mother who supports her, and restricts herself and others from discriminating Kamali from the boys. We need more parents in India to think this way.”
In the future, Verghese hopes to make Girls Skate India an initiative as big and as inspiring as Skateistan, an initiative that combines skateboarding with education in Afghanistan.
Last April, Verghese spoke at a TEDx event (a locally organised off-shoot of the more famous TED Talks) in Bengaluru, on the roadblocks she faced as she nosedived into the world of skateboarding.
TedX's official descriptor for Verghese referred to her as "India's most prominent female skateboarder", a title that Verghese says she refrains from using for herself.
“I hope that I am known through my work for the scene and not just being known for being female,” she said. “But it is definitely a rad thing to be called for sure.”