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Meet Tanvi Jagadish: India’s First Professional Female Stand-Up Paddler

As she sets out to introduce SUP to the 29 states of India, trailblazer Tanvi Jagadish talks to us about breaking the mould, body shaming and bikinis.

“Growing up, I received harassment from people most days for being a female surfer,” Tanvi admits, her smile slightly fading. ‘People would say “You shouldn’t surf, you are a girl,” and would stare at what I was wearing in the water, even if it was a long-sleeved top and trousers!”

Now 20, Tanvi is speaking with me sat in the café of her own Stand-Up Paddle school. The morning of the interview, she woke up at 4am, as she does every day to account for her jam-packed schedule. She has already done a yoga class, trained and led some surfing lessons. Speaking to her now as an established entrepreneur and athlete, emanating an overwhelming positivity, it is easy to forget the social, religious, and cultural boundaries that she has been faced with to make a livelihood as a surfer in India. Tanvi clearly recalls growing up facing the taboo of women surfing.

“My grandparents took me surfing for the first time when I was 10 years old. I loved it, it represented freedom to me, but my family did not think surfing was for girls, so they told me I couldn’t do it anymore. I started secretly surfing, which went on for three years. They found out when they began noticing my lighter hair and darker skin, which isn’t favoured in India. My surfboard was confiscated and replaced with a textbook.”

A smile pulls at Tanvi’s lips as she playfully relives her clandestine love affair with the ocean. She giggles throughout when recounting stories of people condemning her for surfing making it appear that she is genuinely unconcerned with fulfilling cultural expectations. “I don’t give a damn what people think of me,” Tanvi assures me. “Everything I have heard over the years I have just ignored- the ocean is for everyone, not just men.

I ask Tanvi if anything managed to knock her confidence growing up. She considers the question for a while, then her brightness briefly falters.

“I experienced a lot of body shaming growing up,” Tanvi recalls, her sunny smile turning grave. “People used to tease me and ask me why I was still so chubby when I surfed all the time. That was just my genes. At the time I didn’t speak to anyone about it, so I didn’t know how to deal with it.”

10 years on, Tanvi is running her own Stand-Up Paddle School called Kadal alongside her best friend Rohan, where she teaches young girls to surf from all over her hometown of Udupi. Rohan met Tanvi 2 years ago when he started taking lessons with her, often bunking off work to attend them. Inspired by Tanvi and the sport, Rohan ended up leaving his job to teach with her full time- and in all honesty, she almost had the same effect on me.

I ask Rohan to tell me about Tanvi and he couldn’t sing her praises enough. “I am the lazy bum when it comes to running the school. Tanvi is so dedicated and energetic; she gets up at 4am every day, she takes night classes, she looks after her family and she keeps the school running… she is amazing.”

Whilst just a decade ago, girls surfing was not accepted by the community, Tanvi now receives requests from families all over the city to teach their daughters to surf and stand-up paddle. The transformation of the city and the liberation of surfer girls was proven on International Women’s Day. Tanvi and Rohan hosted a ‘Surf Like a Girl’ event, where an unprecedented 30 women attended.

“When I started surfing, the line-up was all boys other than me. At this event, we had women from every background in the line-up, even housewives. It was truly amazing.”

Despite the immense attitudinal shift across the city, Rohan and Tanvi both agree that swimwear is still an issue in their community, something I take for granted every day.

“Most people respect me now. Although, I still get people staring at the clothes I’m wearing, even if I’m wearing a long-sleeved top and pants. It’s so awkward. What do they expect me to wear? I would never, ever wear a bikini in India, but I would love to wear one once and see how it feels.”

Outside of their teaching, the taboo-breaking duo focus on building confidence in young women, breaking the stigma around both swimwear and menstruation. Tanvi runs a YouTube channel where she posts advice for girls on their period, which is still a hugely stigmatised subject in her community, once again fighting traditions that alienate women.

Rohan explains, “our community is pretty traditional. Whilst the girls are fully covered, the people look at it in a very objective way. We are teaching the kids that the clothing isn’t offensive, it is clothing to compete and to train.”

Tanvi is writing a new story for Indian women by defying gender barriers and creating a space where women can feel empowered. She is not only carving the path for girls in her own city, but girls all over India as she embarks upon a mission to take Stand-Up Paddling to all 29 states of India.

“We have covered four states so far: Tamil Nadu, Kerala, Karnataka, and Maharashtra. They were all epic! All the states had a very good response and we had so much fun teaching everyone about SUP.”

Tanvi’s journey is far from over as financial burdens replace the cultural ones that once held her back. Tanvi has found it difficult to gain sponsorship which has been detrimental to her career.

“I missed the world championships in 2015 because I didn’t have sponsorship. I trained so hard for it and I saved every rupee I had, sometimes I went without food. I really hope I can gain more support soon.”

In 2016 Tanvi made her world championship debut after crowd funding to raise the money. This was her first international race and she would be the first Indian woman to ever compete at the world championships. She received her big, well-deserved break in 2017 when she won the ISA scholarship, which allowed her to compete in the world championships in Fiji. Her excitement returns wholeheartedly when we discuss the ISAs, which she describes as the best experience of her life.

“I didn’t come first or anything, but it was just amazing to have the opportunity to chase my dreams and watch all the women to try and learn from them. I got selected and I was going. Even if I had to come home to no money, I didn’t care, I was going.”

“You should be glad of the difficult experiences you go through because it keeps you focused on your goals and they make you work harder.”

At just 20-years-old Tanvi has made history both individually, being the first Indian woman to compete at a SUP world championship, and in her wider community as she continues to reconstruct the boundaries for women in India. And one thing’s for sure- she is not finished yet.

Keep up with Tanvi on Instagram @indiansurfergirl and @supsurfindia and stay tuned with all our athletes at @appworldtour and www.appworldtour.com

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