Atita Verghese on Women's Empowerment, Individuality & DIY Spirit - Kingpin Magazine

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Atita Verghese on Women’s Empowerment, Individuality & DIY Spirit

You may already be familiar with Atita Verghese, she featured prominently in a recent Vans campaign alongside Lizzie Armanto, those of you with your finger more keenly on the pulse may be familiar with her work with both HolyStoked and Girls Skate India. Either way read on to learn more about what it’s like growing up skateboarding in Bangalore, how skateboarding can help empower women, and why it’s important to be yourself and channel the DIY spirit inherent in skateboarding.

Portrait: Owen Roberts

Can you tell us a bit about what it’s like growing up in Bangalore?

It wasn’t always a favourite place of mine but I’ve grown to like it. It’s changing a lot now, but when I was younger it was pretty rigid and uniform. It’s a big I.T hub so the corporate culture dominates. In India that means having little or no time for anything outside of work or education. It’s a big city, full of traffic, and it’s not well connected which cuts off a lot of access for people.

It was also challenging growing up with a single mum and no extended family. India has no support systems for its citizens or single parents, it’s either you make it on your own or you end up on the streets.

Sport kept me going for the most part, it gave me something to do that I enjoyed. I remember always giving up one sport for another other after a while, nothing really stuck for too long. I’ve been skateboarding since 19, so that’s the longest I’ve been into any sport.

How did you first find skateboarding? What was it that attracted you to it?

My friend Abhishek from Holystoked found a skatepark in Bangalore, built by Nick Smith, it was one of the only parks in India back then and he used to go there a lot. One of those days I tagged along with him and I went to my first ever skatepark. It was that feeling that helped me feel closer to home personally – the freedom, the community, the weird shit, the laughing.

“The important thing is to not pay too much attention to what other people think of you skating.”

What were people’s reactions to you skateboarding when you started?

Nothing too important to remember I guess. Some people thought it was rad, some people didn’t, some thought I was a dude and wanted to believe it more than anything. Some people laughed, some people clapped. The important thing is to not pay too much attention to what other people think of you skating.

Has there been any noticeable change in attitude over time?

I personally think it’s going to take far longer for attitudes to change here, India is rigid and soaked with traditional barriers. But hey, without wanting to sound too proud, I became the first skater in India to get paid for what I do and the first rider for Vans in India – so that’s definitely something!

Backside smith grind at the Cave Skatepark. Ph. Anthony Acosta

When did you first become involved with HolyStoked?

When I started skating with the guys back in 2012 they had already started Holystoked. As I started skating with them they were the first few people I met on my journey. I did a few classes for them in 2013.

How did Girl Skate India come about, was there a specific moment where you realized you wanted to do something, or was it a slow burning idea?

It was a gradual process for sure. When I started skating there were two other girls, but they stopped shortly after. When I decided to start GSI it was a lot to do with the fact that there weren’t many other girls actively in the scene and I wanted a crew to skate and hang with. Don’t get me wrong, I had one and they were good skate buddies but it’s a whole different thing when you have your girl gang. I also felt what an exciting time it was for skateboarding in India and I wanted more women to be a part of this history in the making.

What are your goals with Girl Skate India?

I’d like to make it established and start working with kids on a regular basis so we can really foster a place for skateboarding and creativity, and hopefully have some of the rising female skateboarders get employed in some way. It’s a rough sketch but the road is long so which way it unfolds is exciting for me.

“it’s a whole different thing when you have your girl gang”

What do you think it is about skateboarding that can help empower people, particularly women?

Since we fall so much and work hard to learn something we learn how to fail and learn to accept failure – that failure is a prerequisite for success. I think knowing this and keeping on pushing is important.

Skateboarding also has a direct proportionality to confidence. The more you have of one the more you have of the other. The communities it links you with, some of my best friends are skaters. It teaches us that rules are made up by other humans and the most important thing is to have fun and enjoy yourself letting go.

I think a combination of these things can make quite an impact on humans and particularly women and girls in terms of feeling empowered.

In 2016 you and other women travelled India skating and teaching skate lessons – can you tell us a bit about that trip?

It was so sick. I literally just sent out a DIY flyer on Instagram that I’d put together to all the female skaters I knew and 13 of them showed up, from 9 different countries! It was wild.

It was fully self-funded, so that meant no sponsorships and no expectations. We went around to 4 different locations – Kovalam, Bangalore, Goa and Hampi. We skated, ran workshops with the local girls, built a little DIY, did some skate yoga. Go watch the video on our website!

Teaching at the Janwar Castle Clinic. Ph. Norma Ibarra.

How did your involvement with Vans begin?

I was just minding my business and skating and my friend Darius comes up with the idea to get Vans to sponsor me. He even proposed it to them. I didn’t really think anything was going to happen but then two years later I got called to the office and told they wanted to start a Vans India team and wanted me to be their first rider, I almost couldn’t believe it. I thought it was sick that they wanted a chick to be their first team rider. Some people call it good marketing, but I look at it as progression. The Head of Marketing is super supportive to the girl’s skate scene, she’s awesome.

Besides keeping my feet fresh I’ve got a lot of support for personal projects, they sponsored a build we did on the Girl Skate India Tour Vol. 2 and a few workshops. We landed a campaign with Vans that kickstarted a worldwide series of girl’s skate events. I got to travel to Orange County for the first of that series and take part in a panel discussion, as well as meeting some amazing people in skateboarding. It’s super crazy, I never pictured any of this!

Lizzie Armanto visited you recently, how did that come about and what does it mean to you/your scene?

I think Vans wanted to show their support to women’s skateboarding and portray that in their new 2018 campaign. I’ve been riding for Vans in India since 2016 so I guess they turned here and wanted to shine the light on what was going on. I think India has so much potential, it’s crucial to support your local women’s scenes because they are important culturally and need that push to really get things going – so it worked out perfectly.

“There’s probably a couple hundred skaters in a population of 1.3 billion”

It means a lot that this happened, it’s validation that shows we’ve made progress in adding some fuel to the flame. For me personally it proved that you don’t have to be somebody specific or come from a particular background to affect change – you just have to be yourself.

What is the Indian skate scene like as a whole – are the many shops, brands or media to support it?

The streets are rarely skateable due to space being a problem in an overpopulated country, the streets are also way too crusty most of the time and there aren’t many squares or public grounds for us to use.

There’s a few skate parks scattered around the country, Bangalore being home to two parks could call itself the skate capital of India. It’s where most people travel to for skateboarding in India, both from inside the country and outside of it.

There’s probably a couple hundred skaters in a population of 1.3 billion. To summarise, it’s a fairly new and developing scene that’s got a lot of potential but it isn’t that popular in the mainstream at all.

Building with Lizzie Armanto.

Do local governments within India support skateboarding in any way?

Sadly, not at all. They haven’t recognised it yet as something that even exists in the country probably. However, there has been one single bowl project in the whole country that got a chunk of government funds, but unfortunately the citizens doing it were expats who had no idea of skateboarding and construction of facilities so it was a major failure. But that’s what happens when people who don’t skate try to build without consulting skaters.

But honestly, the Indian government doesn’t really care about its youth and supporting athletes or sporting activities. There’s grants for ‘extreme sports’ but so far no skater has been influential enough to tap in to that money.

“I think skateboarding can be used to drive social change in India.”

How is skateboarding being part of the Olympics viewed in India? Do you think it will legitimise it more to the average person?

I think a lot of people are down with that here. There’s not too much support for the scene, and a lot skaters that are putting in so much can’t make a living off it yet. In India nothing is really valued if there’s no prize at the end of it, contests are one of the first things any parent taking their kids to skate will ask about. It definitely gives us a legitimate argument with it being in the Olympics.

I’d love to see the day India starts to value other sports and it’s athletes that don’t come with the big money like cricket does.

How do you see skateboarding progressing in India?

There are going to be a lot more skateparks soon and a lot more skaters eventually. Back when I started you knew everyone else that skated and now it’s hard to keep track.

I see it so much more in the media now and I think it’s just going to get more and more popular. I think skateboarding can be used, and is being used in the cases of Kovalam Skate Club and Janwaar Castle, to drive social change in India. We need to see more of these initiatives for sure.

What do you have coming up for the rest of the year?

Lots of exciting stuff hopefully, let’s see how things turn out. When the curve goes down the only next way is up!

That’s a lovely way to put it, best of luck Atita!

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