In a small South Indian village, the local youth are reaching for the stars every day, driven by passion, resilience and - skateboards. Kovalam Skate Club is a community led organization promoting education, gender equality and personal development through skateboarding.
We had the pleasure of meeting Vidya Das and Joshan Jonson, two young skate-sensations who rose from a life of poverty into one of fulfillment and perspectives thanks to their passion and talent for skateboarding. They are joined by the project’s coach and founder Vineeth Vijayan, coach Akilah and social worker Gaetan Depecker who work tirelessly to change the harmful and limiting narratives within their society. Together they give us an opportunity to dive into Kovalam Skate Club’s mission and better understand its importance against the national landscape.
How did Kovalam Skate Club get its start?
Gaetan: Kovalam Skate Club is a project under the bigger NGO Sebastian Indian Social Project, or shorter – SISP. Vineeth, who is the founder and coach of Kovalam Skate Club, was a student of SISP at the time, so he has been involved with the organization for a long time. At first, there was a project called Kovalam Surf Club which had the rule: no school, no surfing. Basically, students who went to school on a regular basis were allowed to attend surfing lessons on the weekends. However, there was a problem – during the monsoon, surfing was not allowed. There was also a second problem – culturally, girls were not allowed to go inside the water with the boys, so the project wasn’t reaching them. Vineeth was already thinking about what he could do to reach more people, so he went to SISP and asked – what if we created a side project? And so, with the help of international volunteers, they started Kovalam Skate Club. This was in 2014.
There were three principles – the first one was: no school, no skateboarding. If the participants went to school on a regular basis they could attend free skateboarding lessons. The second rule was: girls first. Girls are still unfortunately considered second-rank citizens in India. Kovalam Skate Club really wanted to promote gender equality by implementing this. And the third rule was: keep trying – push yourself to the limit and keep yourself motivated. If you believe in yourself, you can accomplish so much more than you thought was possible. Over the years, the skate club grew and a lot of people got interested, both boys and girls.
Vineeth, were you a skater yourself before starting Kovalam Skate Club?
Vineeth: At the time, there was not a lot of skateboarding in India. No skateparks or anything in Kerala, only a few in Bangalore. It was the sport of tourists. Back then, I felt like I didn’t have any talents and I was disappointed because all my friends were doing so much. I was always a bit worried because I also wanted to do something. Then one day a friend told me – why don’t you try skateboarding?
Of course I didn’t know what a skateboard was or where I could find one. So I went to YouTube and I thought – this looks nice. Suddenly, after a few weeks, I got a skateboard from a tourist, but we didn’t even have a good road for riding here. There was a children’s park however, and I used to practice there. I fell down so many times and broke my fingers… My friends were asking – what are you doing? Are you stupid? Even my mother was angry saying that I’m turning 24 and playing like a kid. But I filmed myself skating and posted it to Facebook and some of my international friends from SISP saw it and said that it was nice. They wanted to try. I took the skateboard to SISP and a few kids came up and asked what it was – they’ve never seen one before. Then, together with the SISP organizers, we decided to create a mini skatepark on the school site. When it attracted more and more skaters, I realized that skateboarding is not just a little thing, but a very big thing. We started for fun but it became very serious. Now, we are proud to say that Vidya is the best in India, while Joshan has been selected for the Asian Games in September. It’s like magic. So many kids had never even left their village, they were not used to traveling or anything like that. And now, thanks to skateboarding, they travel, they’re meeting new people and making friends.
Have you faced any challenges when running such a pioneering project, especially when promoting principles which challenge many societal attitudes?
Vineeth: In the beginning people took it as a joke because nobody knows about skateboarding here. India is famous for football, cricket etc. and they found my work with kids to be a waste of time and energy. The parents were also worried about the amount of falling down that the kids went through and were asking – what do they get from this? What future is this for them? Also, for the girls, it was an even bigger problem. Their parents are always worried that it’s a sport only for boys. Even when we took them to some other cities to skate, people would come up and ask – who is this girl? What is she doing there with these boys?
But that is slowly changing. After skateboarding became recognized in the Olympics, our country also started a state championship and nationals. So our kids are getting medals, certificates, honors from the church and the school. Now the families are very happy and it’s going very smoothly.
Gaetan: As a side note from an outsider who came to visit Kovalam Skate Club a couple of times, I think part of the reason why the project is so successful and why they have done so many things, is because it’s very community driven. Vineeth is the founder and coach, but he comes from the local community. He was a participant of SISP himself, so he knows a lot about what the kids are going through. Akilah is also from the community. This means that the families of the children have a very good, trusting relationship with them both. They take a lot of time to talk to the parents, to pick up the kids, to make sure that they are safe, to explain exactly what is happening when they go to competitions. This is really important because it’s very hard to attract girls, and even boys. It’s very hard for parents to accept it when their children come home with bruises. It’s also hard for them to just say – yes, you can go and have fun. Culturally, it’s very difficult.
Akilah, as a coach, how do you maintain the motivation levels in the children, as well as the trusting relationships with the parents? How does it feel to guide the young skaters’ evolution?
Akilah: It makes me so happy. I’ve been with Kovalam for the past 5 years. I started out as a carer for girls during skate trips and competitions. Now, I am a leading team manager so it’s a big journey which faces different circumstances. It’s not an easy job. We need to have strong connections with the kids’ families and we struggle a lot to create those connections. For me, as a girl, it’s easier to talk to the parents and make them comfortable. They feel safer with a girl. Culturally, girls are not expected to do sports or focus on education. They’re supposed to get married after they hit puberty and that’s where the real problem starts – girls always have to be a slave for the man.
Even when the parents are more conscious and allow a girl to fly towards her dreams, they are then blamed by the community. It’s a long process for society. The people of India, especially Kerala, are very rooted in their area and stuck to their beliefs. But still we continue talking with them, going to homes and trying our best. I am also a student of SISP and that was my motivation to volunteer every year. I am so grateful for the opportunities I got so far and I would like to work for girls and bring more of them as participants of skateboarding.
I believe I can break the chain.
Vineeth: Vidya is a good example of this.
Akilah: Vidya is a very good example. She doesn’t have to go back, get married and become a slave. She has opportunities and she knows she deserves better. And there are more girls like her, not only skating but also pursuing their education. I want to make them aware of the environment and help them to earn life skills. Women in India are still not safe, there are still rapes and dowry murders. If I can do something for girls it would mean so much to me.
Vidya, how has the journey with Kovalam Skate impacted your life?
Vidya: At first, I didn’t know what skateboarding was. It started as a passion, I wasn’t aware that there are competitions and championships. Sometimes I would fall and then get up again, and I started liking the process. After that, I started learning tricks and every time I landed one I would get an amazing feeling. I actually failed my first competition because I was too afraid. But then – I started winning medals. State, district, national… Whatever I participate in, I end up getting gold.
My family is very supportive, but at first some neighbors and friends were trying to manipulate them into not allowing me to skate. But now they are also very supportive so I am not as worried anymore. Last year, I participated in the National Games, one of the biggest championships in India, and I got the first medal. It was my best achievement. After I won, I came back to my area and I was suddenly a star. People knew me, I was on the front pages of newspapers. I became respected by a society which rarely respects women. Now, everyone in my school knows me and I am so happy. So are my parents.
What about you Joshan? What has your journey with skateboarding been like so far?
Joshan: Skateboarding changed my life. A friend showed me his skate videos once, then I asked him where he learned it and he said – Kovalam Skate Club. I said – can I join?
When I got there, I was surrounded by all these skaters doing tricks while I wasn’t even able to stand on a skateboard. At the time, I was very scared so I was practicing every day. One day, Vineeth taught me how to drop on the mini ramp and, for a skater, when you land a trick the feeling is so special. I am so happy and I can’t believe that I am here now. With a national medal and selected for Asian Games.
Did participating in skate sessions make you more inclined and excited to go to school?
Joshan: Before Kovalam Skate Club, I didn’t know how to read or write and I spoke very little English. But I fell in love with skateboarding, and in order to skate I had to go to school. If I didn’t, Vineeth would say – no skateboarding today, go home. So I started going to school and then skating from 4pm every day, as well as Saturdays and Sundays. No skipping. Now, I read, I write and I speak English… But I still get very late for school. If classes start at 9 I will probably arrive at 11. That’s another problem *laughs*
At THE SKATEROOM, we really believe in the link between skateboarding and creativity. Has your skate journey introduced you to any other passions?
Gaetan: Skateboarding in India is very raw and new. It only started 14 years ago which brings a certain kind of energy, which is really cool. For example in Bangalore there is a skate park where they do parties – there is music, there are a lot of great graffiti artists… For these kids, it’s a world they’ve never experienced before. While attending the program, they become part of all these things – there’s a guy standing with a ring of fire and they have to jump through it, or there are some amazing artists coming to visit. It expands the creative-you.
Also, of course, Akilah is a very talented artist. The first time I saw her, she was painting on old Kovalam Skate Club skateboards. I feel like she brings another strong creative influence.
Perhaps a future Akilah x THE SKATEROOM collab?
Akilah: I would love that.
What are some of the next goals and dreams for Kovalam Skate Club?
Vineeth: Our big dream is building a new skatepark. We have a small one, which is still very good, but sometimes we are limited and can accommodate only about 25 kids. There are more kids who would like to come. Also, in the Indian skate scene, there has been a lot of changes lately with a lot more opportunities for kids to compete in championships. For that, they need to train at a very good skatepark.
Also, some kids are facing some limitations with their studies. We are always there to help them, looking after their expenses as much as we can, but we really want to give them a future. Some kids, like Joshan, would like to work in something related to skateboarding – as a coach or a skatepark builder. There are many kids like this and we are trying to give them jobs. Our plan is to build a skatepark with a cafe so that people can work there and also teach wealthier kids who are willing to pay them for lessons. Currently, our focus is mainly kids below the poverty line and we don’t want them to just work as fishermen or drive tuktuks, which is what their parents usually want. I’m not saying that it’s a bad job but they already know how to fish, and we don’t want to send them back. We want to show them other worlds. This is our big dream. We want to bring in more kids and spread the culture.