The skateboarders of Janwar

Thanks to a German activist and author, skateboarding is slowly changing the children in this Madhya Pradesh village divided by caste. Can it also change social codes?


A young skateboarder at Janwaar Castle. Photo: Pratik Chorge/Hindustan Times
A young skateboarder at Janwaar Castle. Photo: Pratik Chorge/Hindustan Times

A skatepark in the middle of nowhere, in a village that has electricity poles but gets only a few hours of electricity in a day. A scattering of unfinished brick houses, interspersed with thatched mud structures and some houses that are merely bamboo poles with a plastic sheet thrown on top. Beyond that there is farmland—the harvesting season is over, so now it’s just stubble—and just a few kilometres away, lies the vast Panna National Park.

But to return to the centre of the village: the concrete undulations of the skatepark, its bleached cement greyness broken by bright yellow tigers painted in childish scrawls on the ramps. Ankush Yadav steps on to the edge of the drop with an impish smile, places his leading foot on the skateboard and lets go. There’s that sound of wheels on cement, halfway between a whir and a whoosh, as he spreads his arms and squats low on the board, his smile widening, his mass of hair thrown back by the momentum. He goes smoothly up the other half of the ramp and turns for another go.

Ankush Yadav. Photo: Priyanka Parashar/Mint
Ankush Yadav. Photo: Priyanka Parashar/Mint

Ankush is 8 and irrepressible. He is small for his age—“he’s old but he’s not growing”—his friends joke, and he is constantly fidgeting. Even when he sits down to talk, he juggles an old, battered skateboard—holding it with both arms outstretched, twirling it, grabbing it under his armpit, shifting it across his chest: “I have fallen many times!” he says. He rolls up his track pants to display the scars and cuts. “I am not afraid, because I have medicine for it!” he laughs. You can’t understand the thrill of skateboarding unless you fall. Asked if it is fun when others fall, he says “no”, shaking his head. He is unable to keep up the act. “Yes!” he says and keels over laughing.

Ankush is the third of four children of Kallubai, a homemaker, and Nathu Singh, a contract worker in the forests. A student of class IV, Ankush is one of the many children who come to the skatepark every day. His sisters come here too.

“We often dream about skateboarding,” Ankush says. “In our dreams, we leap from the ramp and when we wake up, we find that we have fallen from the bed.” Ankush has been coming to the skatepark since it opened in April last year. It is located in the centre of Janwar village, on the eastern buffer zone of Panna, in drought-ravaged Bundelkhand in Madhya Pradesh.

There are 240 houses in Janwar with a population of just over a thousand. It’s a village with no jobs or businesses outside of agriculture, and farming is becoming increasingly difficult because of the aridity of the land. It is also a village divided by a thick caste line. On one side are the Yadavs and on the other, a smattering of tribal groups or Adivasis. The two groups do not socialize or inter-marry. And the Adivasis are not allowed inside Yadav homes or to touch their food.

Children skateboarding at Janwaar Castle. Photo: Priyanka Parashar/Mint
Children skateboarding at Janwaar Castle. Photo: Priyanka Parashar/Mint

The purpose of the skatepark—called Janwaar Castle—is to uplift the lives of the children, bring some fun into their lives and let them learn new skills while playing and, by extension, develop the village at large. The skatepark is growing into a modest complex: there is a hut made of bamboo to store the boards and gear and hold basic classes in English, maths, and hygiene, taught by volunteers. There are a couple of toilets under construction.

There is no coach or trainer. The children learn skateboarding on their own, with the help of YouTube videos. In the initial days, they imbibed techniques from the professionals involved in building the skatepark and learnt on the go.

In this village, the two places where the caste lines get blurred are the government primary and middle schools, and the skatepark.

Most of the villagers still don’t understand what exactly happens at the skatepark, but they are happy to send their children to a place that offers so much excitement.

*****

Ulrike Reinhard on one of her visits to Janwar. Photo: Priyanka Parashar/Mint
Ulrike Reinhard on one of her visits to Janwar. Photo: Priyanka Parashar/Mint

Janwaar Castle was set up by Ulrike Reinhard, a 59-year-old German woman with salt-and-pepper hair. Reinhard, like Ankush, is a woman defined by motion. She is an Internet activist, networker, author, publisher, business consultant, researcher and social worker. She has no fixed abode.

Reinhard rides a powder-blue Bullet—she learnt to ride it over the last four years, and it has been her constant companion since. It is a “she” of course, and Reinhard calls her “Srini”.

“I don’t have more belongings,” she says. “Home is where I can park my Bullet.”

Born in Heidelberg, Reinhard studied economics at the University of Mannheim in Germany in the 1970s and has a background in marketing and human resources. She is also an early member of The WELL (The Whole Earth ‘Lectronic Link), “the world’s most influential online community”. She has, over the years, done freelance consulting work in developing communities and businesses through networking. A lot of her projects have been in Africa and India, especially with children.

Reinhard first came to India in 2012 to attend a business conference. While on a trip to Khajuraho, an acquaintance suggested she look at setting up schools in the region, among the most backward in the country. Some years later, after a lot of research to find suitable places and people to work with, a couple of partnerships that went sour and a court case, she settled on Janwar. By now, the idea of the school had morphed into something a bit more offbeat.

“We saw a couple of plots and then we went to Janwar,” Reinhard says. “And the moment I saw the spot, it just clicked. The only thing I could think of was Skateistan.

“We had 12 skateboarders from six nations, and with some local help, we built the skatepark. We started in December 2014 and finished in March 2015. And it was ready for the kids in April.”

Skateistan is an international non-profit organization that uses skateboarding and education as tools for youth empowerment. It was started by Oliver Percovich, an Australian, in 2007, under the shadow of guns, bombs and a major offensive against the Taliban in war-torn Afghanistan.

“I saw skateboarding as a potential way of connecting Afghan kids to the rest of the world,” Percovich said in an April 2014 interview to The Sydney Morning Herald. “And I knew those links would help them so much more than any money that would come in through aid.”

Graphics: By Mint
Graphics: By Mint

Skateistan became a phenomenon. It had all the ingredients—young Afghan boys, instead of learning how to shoot weapons, were now riding their boards in an abandoned swimming pool, which the Taliban had used to hold public executions. Even more startling: the first women skateboarders in the country, girls in traditional dresses were “dropping in from the quarter pipe”, as reported in a magazine.

To quote a 2013 article in Wired, Percovich “didn’t set out to help those kids heal from the ravages of war or bridge the socio-economic divide between Afghanistan’s ethnic groups. He never planned to create safe havens where 1,600 children, including a few hundred girls, in two countries (Afghanistan and Cambodia) can skate and play and just be kids.

He just wanted to teach kids how to skate.”

Skateistan now has two skate schools in Afghanistan and schools in Cambodia and South Africa, through which it reaches out to more than 1,000 children every week. Over 40% of the registered students, according to their website, are girls.

“I thought if it can be done there, why not in Janwar?” says Reinhard. “I am convinced that transformational change on a huge scale in rural areas can only be achieved by working with the children.”

Janwaar Castle, like Skateistan, was built through crowdfunding.

“I asked artists across the world to make us artboards. And we got 19 of them, including one by the Chinese activist and artist Ai Weiwei. We auctioned them on eBay through skate-aid and raised $16,000 (Rs10.9 lakh now), just enough to build the skatepark. An architect came from Germany to help us build the park,” says Reinhard.

In January, the Janwaar Castle Community Organization was registered as a not-for-profit, private limited company, with Reinhard as the CEO. Reinhard describes Janwaar Castle as an “open process”: “An open process is one where you have a vision and try to trigger change,” she says. “There is no defined path or outcome.”

She believes that the breaking down of caste barriers at the skatepark is an organic outcome of the philosophy. “It just happened…is it good, is it bad? I don’t know, but it’s happening…”

*****

A Classroom in session. Photo: Pradip Kumar Saha/Mint
A Classroom in session. Photo: Pradip Kumar Saha/Mint

Janwaar Castle attracts about 50 children every day, both Adivasis and Yadavs. They come streaming in after school. The skatepark is full of the happy cacophony of shrieking children and rolling wheels. A girl comes round the bend of the bamboo hut, seated on her board, another riding pillion, letting out a blood-curdling warning for others to get out of the way.

Asha Adivasi, 16, is surrounded by other girls noisily demanding boards and gear: “Didi, give me this! Didi, give me that! Didi, help me put the guard on!” Nine-year-old Goldie Yadav is sitting in a corner. She hasn’t got a skateboard. Asha tells one of the boys to hand over his skateboard to Goldie. There is a “girls first” rule here.

Asha is the daughter of agricultural labourers Dharmraj and Kamala, and a kind of village idol for the Adivasi children. She is in charge of the equipment and its distribution, and an early success story for the skatepark. Like most Adivasi children in the village, Asha is also a shy girl. Not too long ago, she was afraid of the boys.

Asha says the skatepark has helped her become confident. “I used to fear the boys earlier. They used to pass lewd comments. But here, I skate with both boys and girls. So that fear of boys is slowly fading,” she says. “Young boys in the village used to pick up habits like drinking, chewing tobacco and gambling very early. The skatepark has prevented many of them from doing that.”

Asha appeared for her class X exams in 2015; the same year she also participated in an English language course during a summer camp at Janwaar Castle. She did so well in that course that Reinhard got in touch with schools in Oxford, UK, in an attempt to arrange for her admission there on a scholarship.

“Initially, my parents were concerned about my safety in a foreign land, but they have come around,” says Asha, enthusiastically. “I am excited at the prospect.” If the passport and visa formalities get sorted in time, Asha could also become the first person from Janwar village to go abroad.

Manoj Kumar Sharma, 52, assistant teacher cum headmaster in-charge at the primary section of the government school in Janwar, says the skatepark has been good for the children. “They have learnt etiquette, discipline and the importance of cleanliness,” says Sharma. “They are more confident.”

When Janwaar Castle first opened, attendance at the school dropped. “But after a ‘no school, no skateboarding’ rule was introduced at the skatepark, students started coming to the school more regularly after that,” says Sharma.

But “it is slowly getting worse again,” says Mohammad Rashid, a teacher in the middle section. Though, he adds, “that it is not because of the skatepark, but because most families are very poor and would rather have their children help them earn money.”

Rashid is sceptical whether the skatepark can bring about bigger, more fundamental changes in society. “Casteism is an age-old problem here. But we try to keep children away from that. Here, they are just children, not Adivasis or Yadavs,” he says.

However, an 11-year-old girl, who is a good skateboarder, gets angry at being mistaken for an Adivasi. “I am not an Adivasi,” she says haughtily.

Inderjeet Adivasi, 13, is lanky, and, like many children here, barefoot. He is wearing a blue and white striped shirt, its right shoulder torn but held together with some stitches and a safety pin. His grey trousers end a good few inches above the ankles. He is soft-spoken and doesn’t make eye contact while talking. He has been going to the skatepark for more than six months, he says. He is like a back-bencher, stands in the shadows, behind the Yadav children, waiting patiently for his turn to come, just about average when it comes to skating prowess.

Inderjeet is one of the seven children of Sheela Bai and Shivdhani, who are agricultural labourers. Inderjeet is the only one from the family who goes to the skatepark.

“I love skateboarding,” says Inderjeet, his eyes shining. “But the Yadav boys hog most of the practice time,” he says.

Inderjeet has fought with the Yadav children a couple of times over this. “When Ulrike brings us candies or biscuits, the Yadav kids take most of it themselves. This happens behind Ulrike’s back.”

The Adivasi children are not allowed inside Yadav households. The children and their families accept it as just the way things have always been.

“We sit outside when we visit our Yadav friends,” says Arun Adivasi, 15. “If we touch their water, they throw it away,” he says simply.

“We don’t like this. Our parents don’t socialize with the parents of our Adivasi friends but we like to play with them,” says Ankush. “When I asked my mother why my friend could not come inside our home, she said our community will boycott us if we allow them to.”

Asha and Charan Singh Yadav have four daughters and one son. All of them, except 14-year-old Bharti, go to the skatepark. Twelve-year-old Shailendra was the first to go. “I was afraid that they might get hurt, but they were adamant,” says Asha Yadav from behind her veil. She doesn’t mind her children being friends with Adivasi children. “The kids can play and eat together, but grown-ups can’t,” she says. “I don’t know if it is wrong or right but that’s how it is.”

About a kilometre from Asha’s house, Sheela Bai and her family are hard at work. Sheela doesn’t send her daughter to the skatepark. “It’s in the Yadav’s side of the village. I feel scared sending my girl there alone,” she says.

Can skating unite Janwar?

“I don’t really know,” says Asha Yadav.

“Never,” replies Sheela Bai.

*****

For any change to come, there has to be a beginning. Sometimes, the best beginning is through sports. Skating is a particularly interesting sport when it comes to catalysing social change: it was born out of poverty, disenfranchisement, and a desire for a peaceful rebellion to both parental authority and a hardscrabble existence. Skateboarders have always played in spaces abandoned by others and left to rot.

“Skateboarding...from the outside... looks more like a metaphor than a thing in itself,” writes Sean Wilsey in his evocative essay on the sport called Using So Little (carried in the London Review of Books, 19 June 2003).

In skating, you can spend hours with your board lost in your own world, but connected, at the same time, to anyone else who is whizzing past on you on their board. There is no sporting “enmity”, because there are no teams, no statistical, competitive lines to reach or cross. It is a sport that thrills instantly with its speed, acceleration, and an indescribable sense of freedom through motion.

“When I am skating, I feel like I am flying,” says Asha.

It also hones the drive to get back up after you fall.

Janwaar Castle held its first Skateboarding Challenge from 12-14 November. American Nyjah Huston, the skateboarding world champion, has offered to visit later in the year.

“The Americans (Huston’s team) are also bringing 20 more skateboards. Soon we will have skateboards for all the kids,” says Reinhard. They currently have around 18 good skateboards.

“My wish would be that one day the kids take over the skatepark,” she says. “I am planning to build another three-four skateparks in Madhya Pradesh, including one more in Janwar with increased level of difficulties. If we succeed in doing this, it could trigger changes in more villages. That’s the concept, and this could also be my exit plan.

“But I hope this is not the last project I work on. I like India but I don’t want to die here,” she says.

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Janwaar Castle’s first annual competition

Janwaar Castle held its first annual skateboarding competition from 12-14 November. Forty children from Delhi, Kolkata, Mumbai, Varanasi and Kovalam, aged 4-16, participated in challenges across five categories.

“I skate in Goa and I haven’t seen any girls who are as good as the ones I’ve seen here,” said Brazilian Samuel Silva, one of the jury members. “There are nine skateparks in India, and this is the only rural one. That’s what made me come here. It is incredible to see how much the kids are willing to learn.”

Deepa Yadav, Ramkesh Adivasi and Ajay Yadav were judged the best overall skateboarders in the girls, 6-11-year-old, and 11-16- year-old categories, respectively, and their performance has secured them a session with Nyjah Huston, the reigning skateboarding world champion, when he visits Janwar.

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A history of skateboarding

1950s

Stakeboarding takes off as a recreational sport on the West Coast of US. It is believed that the sport was invented in California by some avid surfers who found the sea too flat to surf. So they took wooden boards, fixed four wheels on it and started surfing on the streets instead.

1970s

The Del Mar National Championships is held in California in 1975—it showed the world what skateboarding could be. Legendary skateboarders Tony Alva and Jay Adams acquired celebrity status after playing themselves in Dogtown And Z-Boys.

In 1978, Alan Gelfand performed a no-handed aerial trick. A combination of popping, kicking and jumping on the board—snapping the tail of the board down while sliding the front foot to the nose and jumping with the skateboard stuck to the feet. The trick, named Ollie (after Gelfand’s nickname), would go on to become one of the fundamentals of street skating.

1990s

A definite shift is seen from ramp-based vert skateboarding to street skating. This, over the last couple of decades, has helped the fan base grow significantly. In 1995, the first season of ESPN’s X Games was held in Rhode Island.

2016

The Olympics Committee decides to make skateboarding an Olympic sport, starting with the Tokyo Games in 2020.

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