The wheels are turning: How Mumbai’s skateboarding scene took off
In just 5 years, a YouTube-taught skateboarding community in the city has gone from practising in abandoned spaces and running from cops, to having a dedicated space. And this is just the beginning
It’s 35 degrees Celsius on a Saturday afternoon in May. The sweat flows uninhibited. But it doesn’t seem to bother the dozen-odd skateboarding enthusiasts at Khar Social. The 25-feet, open-air skateboarding ramp opened in late 2015, and is one of the first exclusive venues in the city.
As one skateboarder glides down from the top of the ramp, the others wait patiently for their turn. At times, they flip their boards and seem to float in the air. Some fall, but pull themselves up and go again. This goes on for a while. Until the skateboarders’ monthly meet begins. This is what they’re here for. The venue has been hosting such meets since January.
Once the event begins, Nick Smith (52), a British skateboarder, and now called the ‘godfather of Indian skateboarding’ in this small circle, is in charge. He introduces the skateboarders, and shares tips on staying steady. Soon, there is a beat-boxer providing an up-tempo background score.
This evening, the band of skateboarders is heading to Panvel afterwards, to Topgun — a 12-feet-high vertical ramp. It marks the first edition of SkateStock, a quarterly, all-night gathering where you skate and listen to music. After a failed crowdfunding campaign, Nikhil Bhosale (32), a member of the Skateboarders United Association (a skating NGO), teamed up with Green Cross X-tream Sports and skateboarders to build the ramp in just 25 days.
Evidently, a movement, though nascent, is beginning. And the small community is finding ways to expand, or just connect with each other.
The quintessential American activity of skateboarding is an offshoot of surfing spilling over to the streets during off-season. In Mumbai, it arrived slowly over just the last five years, coinciding with the rise of social media and YouTube. The former helped skateboarders in different parts of the city find each other. The latter helped them self-educate on techniques.
The Skateboarders United Association pegs the number of skateboarders in the city at 4,000 (200 regulars). They’ve formed several groups: Skateboarding in Mumbai, Flipping Awesome, Meteoric and Beastmode.
But it’s a small world, really, and everyone knows everyone, mostly aged between 20 and 35, including students as well as working professionals who train over weekends.
Unlike cycling or hiking, skateboarding is an urban sport. In the absence of ramps, its lifeblood has been the city’s railings, steps, and roads. The sub-culture in the west is associated with rebellion (skateboarders often land in trouble for not taking permissions). And Mumbai’s skateboarders are no strangers to that.
Russell Lopez (31), manager-digital at Ogilvy India, is a member of the Skateboarders United Association and Skateboarding in Mumbai. He recalls how they would practise at an abandoned school near Napean Sea Road a few years ago. “There was a slum next to it. You had to walk carefully, or spend the rest of the day removing faeces from your shoes.”
“But that spot was the beginning of an urban culture. Quickly, it became the venue for BMXers (bicycle motocross) and skateboarders,” says Altamash Sayed (32), who heads JV Media (a marketing agency), and is the co-founder of Skateboarders United Association.
Lopez’s initiation into the sport happened as a child: “My sister was gifted a pair of roller-skates on her birthday. I was nine, and threw a tantrum. So my father came back with a skateboard and I starting cruising around.”
For the Meteoric crew in Bandra and Dharavi, their passion for doing BMX stunts led them to try skateboarding. Dharavi is also a bastion for hip-hop artists and B-boys — the soundtrack for skateboarding — and the association influenced many to join.
So far, skateboarders have been practising under the radar. Now, the development of infrastructure is significant. “When we find a spot, it’s usually part of someone’s property. The noise attracts the attention of security personnel or owners. And, usually, they don’t want us around,” explains Lopez.
“Once, we were rounded up by the cops and put in jail for a few hours for skateboarding,” recalls Manz Jaiswal (21), a second-year BMM student, who’s part of the Meteoric crew. “Now, we make it a point to seek permission to practise at the BKC City Park.”
A game-changer has been the setting up of Khar Social, believes Smith. “Before that, skateboarders relied on venues like Hinduja Park and BKC City Park, which weren’t exclusive. This venue made it okay for skateboarders to legitimately skate at any time,” he says.
Man of the moment
Smith, who is also the founder of the Advaita Collective, has been a major facilitator in Mumbai’s skateboarding scene. He started skateboarding at the age of 10 in Brighton, a city on the south coast of England that boasts of 15 skate parks for a population of 3,00,000. He turned pro when he was 15, winning several competitions. But after that, he admits “the effects of the prize money went to my head”.
Over the years, Smith has been a sports car salesman and even an acupuncturist; but skateboarding remained a passion. He moved to Goa 14 years ago. As a 38-year-old, he was keen to spend time with his family. “But I was watching skateboarding videos all the time. I thought I only have two more years of skateboarding left in me and it’s now or never.” In 2008, he finished constructing Sk8 Goa, a private skate park at his rented home near Mapusa.
In 2010, he moved to Bengaluru where he formed the Holystoked Skate Collective and consequently built a skate park for adventure sports company Play Arena. The skills required to build the ramps, he says, were acquired on the job.
In 2015, Riyaaz Amlani, CEO and MD, Impresario Hospitality, approached him to set up the ramp at Khar Social in partnership with Red Bull. The ramp is up, but Smith isn’t done with Mumbai just yet. He’s now a consultant for an upcoming 1,450 sqm public skate park in Nerul. Being built on a budget of Rs 4 crore, it is funded by the Navi Mumbai Municipal Corporation, and will open in the next two months.
And this is just the beginning. Smith is in talks to build four more skate ramps, in Navi Mumbai and Thane (where space is not as hard to find), all expected to be operational in the next six months. “I am a dot joiner,” says Smith. “The skateboarding community is strong. We have volunteers who took leave just to help with the construction of the skate park,” he adds.
Where’s the money?
Globally, skateboarders earn from competitions, and photography/videography of events. But most skateboarders in Mumbai admit the sport barely has any monetary returns. Sagar Waghela (22) is the exception. The Meteoric member and Dharavi resident has won competitions across India. He came second at the Third Eye skateboarding tournament (Bengaluru, 2013) and won first prize at Jugaad annual skate competition (Delhi, 2015). Along with his crew members, he makes money doing shows and ad shoots. He’s shot with Akshay Kumar and Salman Khan as well.
But in the absence of money, what drives skateboarders? “There is a sense of freedom and an adrenaline rush,” says Jaiswal. “You may be able to do the toughest tricks or barely be able to balance yourself. But once a skateboarder, always a skateboarder,” says Bhosale.
Skateboarding’s variant, Longboarding (see box), also has takers. It includes the Longboard Girls Crew India, who train girls at Parsik Hills, Seawoods. “I’ve been stopped by people asking to try the longboard. When they are not able to do it, I teach them how,” says crew member Kunjika Singh (20).
While skateboards cost upwards of Rs 4,000 and can be ordered online or from skateboarding shops, there are customised options as well. Spandan Banerjee (27), founder of Tattva Boards and an avid surfer/longboarder, makes longboards on demand. Priced upwards of Rs 5,500, they don’t come cheap but have takers. “I’m trying to make skateboards that are art pieces and have laser etching,” he says.
Smith, who runs a skate shop called BRGTN in Seawoods, is also planning to introduce boards made in India.
While the skateboarding scene in Mumbai is really very nascent, the road ahead is opening up. “I’m privileged to be part of this embryonic scene. It is the glory days. And skateboarders will look back a decade later and remember that here, right now, is how it all started,” says Smith.
Longboard vs skateboard
A longboard has longer dimensions. A regular board is approximately 31 inch in length and 7.5 inch in width while a longboard is 38 inch in length and 9 inches in width. Longboards are meant for high- speed cruising while skateboards are great for stunts.
Glossary of terms
Bail: Getting off on purpose
Shred: Skate hard
Charge: Go as fast as possible
Rad and sick: Really good
Amped, pumped, stoked: Super-exited
Stick it: Encouraging your friend to make it
Nailed it: Making a trick