When skateboarding makes its debut at the Summer Olympics this weekend, there will be a small but dedicated group of fans watching nearly 5,000km away in Gangtok. India isn’t participating but for these skateboarders, many of whom compete within India, seeing their sport on the world stage holds a particular thrill. Skateboarding represents different things to different people—freedom, style, rebellion—but in Sikkim, it’s about making better life choices, breaking away from substance abuse and finding a community.
“I started skateboarding around four years ago just to while away time. I had become heavily addicted to drugs after I left school. I would use, then skate, but the community didn’t give up on me,” says Tenzing Sienze Bhutia. Fellow skateboarders coaxed him to sign up for rehab and supported him through it. As he recovered, Bhutia focused wholly on skating. He has since represented Sikkim in Jugaad 2019, an annual competition in Bengaluru, considered India’s skateboarding capital.
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For Bhutia, 24, it’s all about style and constant learning. “Practising to perfect new tricks is fun and cool. That’s what keeps me hooked,” he says. Bhutia is a member of Skatekonnect, formed in 2016 by young people who would skate on the terrace of a local shopping complex in Gangtok. Skatekonnect, which is now popular in Gangtok and Namchi, a town in south Sikkim, uses skateboarding to create a sense of community and keep young people off drugs and alcohol. Bhutia now does for others what the community did for him—talking to them about the dangers of substance abuse and coaxing, cajoling and mentoring those who are dependent through recovery, all the while helping them focus on skateboarding.
“Skateboarding has had a good impact on the young kids who have taken it up. It’s obviously fun but they also get to be in a community. They speak about what they might have seen in the latest skateboarding videos, they talk about new stunts or flips and when one of them can do it after practising for a few days, it is about achieving small goals,” says Joseph Subba, 29, vice-president of Skatekonnect, which has about 60 active skateboarders of varying skill levels.
Subba recalls the days when the Gangtok shopping centre they practised in was considered “a den of anti-social elements”. “Back then, people would look at us oddly when we practised. Parents didn’t want their children associated with us or skateboarding. Now, we have cleaned up the place, we have created skating graffiti on the walls…people come and sit by it and watch the children skate or just hang out.”
Jarina Lepcha, 22, who started skating in 2019, says skateboarding helped her overcome depression and insomnia. She started watching movies on skating and was introduced to Skatekonnect by Bhutia, a friend. She would practise tricks for hours just to tire herself out. “I could sleep when my body was tired. Now I have stopped taking medication, I am in much better health, I have been dancing and skating both,” she says. Lepcha watches YouTube videos to learn new tricks, since most of the self-taught skaters don’t get a chance to meet the pros.
“I pick up tricks watching videos, and we play mobile games related to skateboarding for more knowledge about tricks and trivia,” says Kishan Rai, 16, another member of Skatekonnect, who describes skateboarding as “not just a sport but a lifestyle”.
“During my trip to Bengaluru in 2019, even more than the competition, it was great to meet other skateboarders. They were all so surprised to hear that we skateboard even though we don’t have a single skate park in the state,” says Bhutia. Unfortunately, the pandemic has put a stop to such interactions, and their efforts to grow the community.
“Earlier, people would just hang out and watch us skateboarding. A few would try, maybe one would become a convert. This gave us a chance to show them that we aren’t trying to break the law, or create nuisance, but now, no one comes to watch,” says Lepcha.
Bhutia says he was fortunate enough to meet skateboarders from other parts of India and abroad when he travelled for competitions organised by the RSFI. This helped him not just pick up stunts but also have discussions on how to grow skateboarding in his state. “I made some friends from Varanasi (during the 2019 trip to Bengaluru). We shared ideas about how to make it popular since neither of our cities has skateboarding infrastructure. They sent over some skateboards and wheels for us, which was great. It is a small community, whether in Sikkim or elsewhere,” he says.
Building a skate park is no child’s play—as chronicled in the recent Netflix movie Skater Girl, based loosely on the free skate park in Janwar, Madhya Pradesh, that helped transform the lives of rural youth. In many parts of the world, skateboarding is a symbol of counterculture but in India it has been a means to drive social change.
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“When we built the first free skate park in Bengaluru in 2013, a lot of street kids came to try it out. There are hundreds of kids who practise there now, and this mixing opens their eyes to how someone from a different economic strata lives and everyone’s behaviour changes for the better,” says Abhishek (who uses only one name), the co-founder of Bengaluru-based Holystoked, a skateboarding collective. When he started skateboarding in 2009, he knew of just about 10 other skateboarders in the country. Cut to 2021, and there are over 20 skate parks, including a few Abhishek has helped build.
“Building a skate park is not as expensive as building, say, a cricket pitch,” he says. Depending on the design and size, it can cost ₹250-500 per sq. ft. “I have built parks as small as 300 sq. ft but a good park should ideally be over 6,000 sq. ft,” he adds.
His pet peeve is the absence of a separate body for skateboarding. Currently, the Roller Skating Federation of India (RSFI) takes care of training and events, including sending athletes for international competitions. “But they are not skateboarders, so they miss a lot of details. Yes, they are organising a lot of regional competitions but we have to do more to make a strong community and build awareness,” says Abhishek.
The biggest hurdle, though, can be getting permissions for public spaces. “We had decided that this World Skateboarding Day, 21 June, we would invite local politicians and have a skateboarding showcase,” says Subba. The pandemic didn’t permit that.
For Skatekonnect, building a park is some distance away—they were just hoping to have the terrace they practise on dedicated to the sport. But with over 60 skateboarders, Sikkim’s community is growing. “It is a small step but now that skateboarding is an Olympic-level sport, we are likely to see more kids pick up boards and join us,” says Subba.