“No School, No Skateboarding!” in Chinese, by Lau Waiyiu aka Miki on the Chinese online platform BIE. Miki really manages in a good presentation to provide background information. She is digging deeper than many other journalists do. Here is a rough translation of the article into English … Rough!
No school, no skateboarding!
The story of a skateboarding village in India.
By Miki Lau
Almost everyone who has been to India has had their life changed in some way or another since then.
These people include me and my friend Matjaz. Originally from Slovenia, Matjaz is a photographer now living in Shanghai. He is the first expatriate photographer to hold a photo exhibition in North Korea, and has done some amazing work. Once I overheard his Instagram travelogue about India, with a picture of a concrete skateboard park in a remote village in India, slightly out of place in a field, and a group of kids: all dark-skinned and clutching a heavily used skateboard.
In the two years since I went backpacking alone in India in 2019, the epidemic has made me wish countless times that I could visit this mysterious country with its endless stories once more. So on 31 March, I asked Matjaz out to meet me. Not only because I was interested in his story, but also because after two years of not being able to leave the country, I wanted to reminisce about my time in India and find some connection from someone who also has a free soul but is stuck in Shanghai in the flesh.
01 The photographer and the skate park
It was no longer possible to dine in Yongkang Road that day, so we bought two cups of coffee and sat by the sunny flower garden.
As a storyteller through the lens, Matjaz told me that he reads a lot of news about the region every time he plans a trip, in order to find some interesting stories.
“I go on a website called ‘Atlas Obscura’ every time, and there are very many little-known places on there, some of them even abandoned ruins.”
In February 2020, Matjaz was travelling to India with a friend of his who works as a journalist when he read about a woman called Ulrike Reinhard and her skate park in India. So he contacted Ulrike.
“It was completely deserted and we took a train to town and then a one-hour chartered bus ride to the skateboard village.”
The “skateboard village” is located in Madhya Pradesh, India, in a village called Janwaar. Matjaz says it’s hard to believe that this little skatepark has changed the life of the village, where attendance at classes has increased because of skateboarding, and even Even children from different castes can play together every day.
Matjaz’s return to his home country was immediately followed by the new crown epidemic that swept the world. Last year he received an email from Ulrike, a commercial sports brand that wanted to print his photography on a batch of skateboards for a limited edition collaborative co-branded model. A portion of the profits from the skateboards would go directly to Ulrike’s skate park to support the park’s day-to-day operations and sponsor more skateboarding gear for kids.
Matjaz says: “I’m not a skateboarder or even play any extreme sports, but the skateboards have taken these kids’ stories and turned them into my story through my photography, creating an impact I never dared to imagine.”
2. Me and India
When it comes to India, “suffering” is often inseparable from “hope”.
In 2019, for a documentary, I travelled alone to the yellow soil of South India to live in an AIDS village for a week (read: ‘After a week in India with children living with HIV, I’m no longer afraid of the disease’). During those seven days, I witnessed feudalism, poverty, disease, life and death, friendship, family and hope. I remember the nights when I was overwhelmed by the feeling of powerlessness in the face of humanity and cried under the covers; I remember the children who were born with the HIV virus, holding my hand and telling me they wanted to live.
As I mentioned earlier, “even children from different castes can play together every day”, but I say “even” because inter-caste marriages and even exchanges are not allowed. The caste system is still deeply engrained in the blood of India today, and this social system remains untouchable from the top.
In addition to the caste system, which divides people into higher and lower castes, gender discrimination is particularly acute in India. In lower caste societies, many women are married off before they reach adulthood to relieve pressure on their families, not to mention study. And women from lower castes are subjected to domestic violence by their husbands to varying degrees after they marry. My friend Ganga, a mother of three, who has suffered chronic domestic abuse from her alcohol-addicted husband, said when I asked her why she didn’t leave, “I want to protect my children.”
In Tamil-majority South India, male domestic violence seems to be the norm because violence makes women more obedient. I watched a number of local films while travelling in India, and violent episodes between couples abounded: the male lead slapping the female lead followed by an embrace, followed by the crowd cheering and starting Bollywood-style singing and dancing.
These things seem to me to be a bunch of unanswered question marks.
After listening to Matjaz’s strange story, I was very curious about this Ulrike. The mere thought of promoting skateboarding culture in a remote part of India, in the face of caste and gender discrimination, and being a white woman herself, seemed unlikely.
So I decided to contact her.
3. Futurists and skateboarding
Ulrike Reinhard is described on Wikipedia as a German editor, writer, digital nomad and futurist, founder of the NGO The Rural Changemakers.
In 2014 Ulrike started a skate park project called ‘Janwaar Castle’ in Madhya Pradesh, India. On her website, she describes the reason for starting the project: “I believe that change in remote rural areas needs to be free from the shackles of established economic development models, and this can only happen when you start to change from the young people. Empowering young people, providing options for young people, giving everyone an equal opportunity.”
Janwaar village is located about 400 km from the state capital. The entire village has a population of no more than 1,400 people and is dominated by the tribal indigenous Adivasi, plus a small number of Yadavs. The Yadavs belong to the lowest of the four castes, the Shudras, but still have a higher status than the Adivasis.
Four years after its inauguration, Janwaar Castle Skatepark has produced several national youth skateboard champions, two of whom represented India in China at the 2018 World Skateboarding (Bowl) Championships in Nanjing.
Not only that, but the permanent skatepark, made of concrete, has changed the culture, economy and even the social class structure of the entire village.
Across the computer screen, I met Ulrike, a silver-haired woman who, at 63 years old, has been travelling in Brazil for the last two years of the epidemic. I didn’t really see any connection with skateboarding from her appearance, so I began by asking her, “Do you like skateboarding?”
“No.” She laughed, and I could tell she’d been asked this question many times, “In fact, I don’t need to like skateboarding to build a skate park.”
Ulrike speaks slowly as she continues, “Skateboarding, as we all know, at its core, is a counter-culture, a rebellion against conformity. It is an exploration and expression of an emphasis on the self. It’s easy for people to fall in love with skateboarding and find a path through it that is exclusively their own.”
It is because of this defiant spirit that skateboarding is not popular with the locals in those remote Indian villages that are authoritarian and traditional and still dominated by the caste system.
“I’ve been to many countries, both in the West and the East, and the skateboarders I’ve met present themselves in a very consistent way: listening to the same music, wearing the same clothes and liking the same street vibe. That’s the influence of culture.”
“This culture, which has been chosen by history and people after a big wave, and not imposed on people because of politics etc., is one of the biggest differences between skateboarding and other sports. So to answer your question, it doesn’t really matter if I’m a skateboarder or not, I see culture for what it is, and by thinking and practising it from a cultural perspective, I’m able to use it outside of being an enthusiast to make the most impact.”
A PhD in economics, Ulrike’s research is actually in the direction of internet theory. As a young girl, she saw the birth of Web 2.0, a decentralised online environment that greatly enabled people to express themselves and participate in co-creation freely and equally, changing the rules and ways of human behaviour ever since.Ulrike says that the disruptive, pioneering power of the decentralised web is something she sees in skateboarding too.
“In the remote and closed villages of India, culture is very traditional and entrenched because of religion and the caste system, not to mention import or export. The conditions are like the ‘centralised’ Web 1.0, where everything is set up by someone. So when I first came to Janwaar, the question I gave myself was: how do we create a social movement through culture that can drive change from the grassroots?”
So she experimented with bringing a culture that was at odds with local traditions to the heart of the area, creating a ‘decentralised’ environment by building a skate park.
Ulrike then goes on to describe how she carried out this experiment
4. Two rules
Janwaar Castle has two hard and fast rules: “No School, No Skateboarding” and “Girls First”. Girls First”.
If you want to skateboard, you have to go to school. This may sound easy, but despite India itself being a country with compulsory education, attendance at primary school in Madhya Pradesh is less than 60%. Many families, whose parents themselves lack education, do not naturally believe that “knowledge can change destiny” and prefer to keep their children at home to help with work rather than attend school.
“These two rules are simple enough for everyone to understand, but deeper than that is the idea of equality that we want to convey,” Ulrike says. Ulrike says.
Every morning, the girls get their skateboards first, then the younger children and finally the older ones. The ratio of boys to girls on skateboards can be as high as 50:50, and because there are only a limited number of skateboards and protective gear, the children have to learn to share and take care of their equipment, thus fostering a sense of responsibility from an early age. The two castes, which have not interacted with each other for generations, are beginning to break down from this generation thanks to skateboarding.
“Skater Girl” Asha Gond, the star of Janwaar village, is said to be the model for the protagonist of the Netflix skateboarding film “Skater Girl”. Just 20 years old, she heads up the Barefoot Skateboarders, a branch of The Rural Changemakers. She has won a gold medal at a national skateboarding competition in India and was one of two Janwaar village children to represent India at the World Skateboarding (Bowl) Championships in Nanjing in 2018.
Before falling in love with skateboarding, Asha, like many low-caste girls, lived a life of looking up and facing marriage before she reached adulthood: “If she hadn’t discovered her talent for skateboarding, she would probably have accepted her family’s arrangement and become the wife of some strange man.” Like the plot of the film in Skater Girl, Asha was criticised by the older generation in her village when she first got into skateboarding in 2016, with people approaching her father and questioning why his daughter was chatting with boys her own age at such a young age, and even playing together. So for a while she was prevented from continuing to skateboard and cried every day, but at the same time, became even more identified with her deepest love for the sport of skateboarding.
After winning the national championship, Asha proved herself to her father. Her father saw his daughter on a TV commercial and even saw her become the first person in her village to get a passport and travel to the UK on exchange because of her skateboarding, and slowly let go of the idea of her marrying someone else. When Asha is still being introduced to boys from time to time, her father will say, “I want her to succeed more than anything.”
In a male-dominated society, a female role model like Asha has a significant impact. Not only does she show other kids that girls can skateboard, but that girls can change their destiny through skateboarding. This is what Ulrike calls the fair and disruptive nature of skateboarding. After Asha, there are many more girls in the village who have become stronger and more confident, who don’t need to be chosen by marriage, but who have found freedom by finding their own hearts and trying to make the misfortunes of their native environment end in their own generation.
“Almost every child in the village is now able to stand on a skateboard. I recently received a photo from Asha of a very small child standing on his skateboard with a very proud expression, like a superhero.”
I asked Ulrike: “So how does one go about balancing the traditional local culture with the skateboarding culture? Is it really possible to be completely independent and ‘decentralised’?”
With a determined look, Ulrike replied, “Yes, I keep religion and government out of it. Since the skate park was built, there has never been a religious celebration, it has simply been a venue for skateboarding only and I don’t want to please the locals with religion and politics. At first the villagers, who didn’t even know what a skateboard was, saw the skatepark and thought it was a swimming pool, because the thing was too strange for them. But once they saw children from both Adivasi and Yadav castes playing together and that no one had been injured by the sport, the older villagers accepted the strange sport.”
In India, you don’t need permission from the government to build a skate park, and the land at Janwaar Castle, which Ulrike acquired from a local, is in private domain.
After the release of the ‘Skater Girl’ film, the story of Janwaar village became more and more known, and every now and then the local government would send a journalist, take a picture of the child, publish it in the newspaper and leave.
“A year ago, the Madhya Pradesh government sent an official in a senior position to the village with the promise of a prize of INR 10,000 for each child who won a medal in the competition. I refused and went door to door in the village explaining to the villagers that I hoped they would not accept the government grant, I did not want them to be dependent on the government for this and we did not need some false propaganda. The 10,000 rupees was later awarded to these children who won the prize out of my own pocket.”
05 From ‘ME’ to ‘WE’
Fifteen years ago, Ulrike was the editor of WE magazine. When you put “WE” upside down, she says, it becomes “ME”. When the “ME” becomes strong, it creates a better “WE” (A strong “ME” creates a better “WE”).
Culture formation and change never happens overnight. It is a long iteration that takes several generations.
Before the video interview, Ulrike, who is in Brazil, had just finished talking to her children in India, and despite having been away from Janwaar for two years, every day she wakes up and opens WhatsApp, the messages are always full and the children report to her daily on what is happening in the village.
In addition to the skate park, various services and facilities have now been set up in the village: a community centre with a library corner and computer room; after-school tuition classes led by older children; a community kitchen with a vegetable garden that provides meals for the 20 widows in the village who have no one to care for them; five bed and breakfasts that are entirely run by the children and generate a real income for them …… Because it is self-sufficient, the village’s economic situation has not suffered too much in the two years of the epidemic.
Ulrike believes that India, like every other country on earth, has big cities that are sinking: heavily polluted air, an economy that is regressing, and a poor transport system. Cities will become increasingly unlivable in the future, so she wants these children to be able to stay and work and live in the villages in the future, so a new, good ecology needs to be formed at this time.
“Isn’t there an old proverb? If you give a man a fish, it will only be enough to feed him for one meal. But if you teach him how to fish, then he’ll have fish for the rest of his life.” A long-termist, Ulrike believes that the skateboarding culture has changed the mindset and thinking of the villagers and the children, not only embracing skateboarding and enjoying the benefits the sport brings, but also making a conscious effort to keep it going, “In the process of forming a community management model, the children will discuss and argue, it’s all bound to happen, and they will slowly come together as a result It’s all inevitable. The skateboarding culture triggers this idea and thinking and empowers people to initiate change in a way that cricket, hockey and other popular sports in India don’t. This is because mass sports in comparison are not so culturally specific that they can change people’s minds. It’s very important that everything we do feeds back into the community and goes on to influence more generations.”
Halfway through the interview, I was already struck by the fact that many communicators or old guns I’ve met before talk about culture, either in terms of sentiment or business, and use pretty much the same kinds of words.
But what I saw in Ulrike’s interview was something close to an absolute science-based mindset, but at the same time full of human interest and idealism.
“Throughout the Janwaar Castle project, instead of pushing knowledge and money on the people of the village, I used skateboarding to pull them out of their values and drive them to spontaneously find and acquire things that were missing in their lives. This is my ‘pull theory’. A gentle pull and things just happen naturally. Many people don’t understand this kind of thinking and think I’m crazy, but it turns out that this path works: after removing the centre of this closed system, like the Web 2.0 network, new things will constantly pop up everywhere and reverberate naturally.”
“I consciously keep myself at an appropriate distance and don’t interfere too much with the model, but of course sometimes I can’t help it. I have always felt that the ultimate goal of every NGO should be to ‘exit’. The work of an NGO is only truly complete when people in poor areas no longer need it.”
I ask Ulrike: will Janwaar Castle, whose model has been so successful in promoting skateboarding culture and is starting to be replicated and landed in several villages in India, consider doing similar experiments next?
She smiles again: “I’m getting old, you can see I have grey hair and I don’t have the drive or ambition to do more. I will slowly let go of my role as founder of the project and let the children take control of their own lives. Now I enjoy more the time I spend on the road, reaching out to young people like you around the world, going to campuses in different countries to give talks and tell the story of Janwaar Castle.”
07 China trip
Ulrike was last in China for the World Skateboarding (Bowl Pool) Championships in October 2018, accompanying Asha and another child, Arun, to Nanjing to compete.
Ulrike said she was amazed at how early China had an Olympic level bowl venue that the kids could train on. Whereas in India, all the venues are unorganised and chaotic.
“But what I saw was that those kids from the Chinese team were not happy.”
“They train very strictly and hard and everything is very orderly. These kids have the best fields, but I think they might not really appreciate the fun of skateboarding because the skateboarding culture is the opposite of obedience.”
“I’ve been to China many times, to Shanghai, Shenzhen and Nanjing, and I’ve talked to a lot of young people. They follow the rules, are highly educated and have a strong free will. But at the same time I find that there is a huge sense of responsibility and pressure in their consciousness for their families and work, believing that they can only go one way and not be touched or try what they are not allowed to do. They don’t seem to see any other options.”
“Of course, it’s a funny thing. In many Western countries, it used to be part of their history too.”
I took a deep breath.
08 Telling your own story
Earlier, Janwaar Castle’s debut documentary ‘Janwaar’ was selected for the Mountainfilm Film Festival in Colorado, USA, where they were finally able to tell the real story of the children of Janwaar Village and Skate Park in their own words. The full film can be viewed at this link.
Back in the present day in Shanghai, some people haven’t left the house for two months, while I spend my days at home looking at the snowboards and skateboards on the wall and thinking about the surfboards I have stored on the beach somewhere, wondering if they are missing the mountains and the sea as much as I am. The conversation with Ulrike reminded me that I was one of those people whose free will was awakened by board sports. I am probably luckier than many to have had that free will in advance, even if I can’t move at the moment.
I finished this piece on 24 May, the day Airbnb announced that it was suspending support for travel within China. The moment I received the SMS notification, apart from feeling overwhelmed, my mind kept going back to the people and situations I had experienced on my trip before the outbreak.
After talking about his trip to Janwaar, Matjaz said something to me.
“The world is big and curious. Extend your talent.”