When skating icon Tony Hawk shared a photo of his "new favourite skate shot" two weeks ago on Instagram, the image instantly went viral, garnering over 63,000 likes, being re-posted and tweeted a number of times.
The image was a striking one — it shows a young skater poised on a board, navigating the downward sweep of a concrete ramp with elan.
The photo was also arresting for its subject: A little girl, dressed not in traditional skater gear but a simple frock; barefoot, with hair hanging loose, and a look of intense concentration on her face.
In the days since Hawk has put up the photo, the story of that little girl — Kamali Moorthy, a six-year-old resident of the town of Mahabalipuram, has become well known.
Kamali was introduced to Jamie Thomas (the skater and surfboarder who is also a noted photographer) when he was visiting Mahabalipuram by Áine Edwards (an Irish entrepreneur who lives and works in Chennai, but frequents the seaside town for surfing).
It was Jamie who shot the photos of Kamali that caught Tony Hawk's eye, and then the rest of the world's. Jamie taught Kamali a trick that would help her skate down the steeper side of the ramp, and presented her his skateboard, which she has been practising with diligently ever since.
But how did Kamali get onto a skateboard?
The story begins with the surfing culture of Mahabalipuram, where Kamali lives with her family, in Fisherman's Colony.
As the name suggests, the residents here are predominantly engaged in fishing, but some among them have made the sea part of their lives in another way: by riding the waves. Kamali's uncle Santosh Moorthy, in fact, is a very well known surfer.
A few years ago, Áine Edwards began coming down to Mahabalipuram for surfing over the weekends. She would also take students from the institute she volunteered at (the Little Lambs School)down to the beach and give them surfing lessons. One of Áine's friends used to rent a room above the Moorthy family's house (it is a kind of home-stay), and Aine recounts how Kamali's lively presence (she was then three) made her an instant favourite with guests.
"She's quite a character," Áine told Firstpost. "Kamali's a lot of fun!"
'kamali' hyped on her new set up ❤️🙏🏼 @roarkrevival india mission A photo posted by Jamie Thomas (@jamiethomas) on
Soon, Kamali was going down to the beach with Áine and her friend, and had become very comfortable being in the water. Another visitor to Mahabalipuram saw Kamali surfing and offered to sponsor a surfboard for the little girl.
"Kamali's uncle Santosh works with Temple Surfboards, and they made a beautiful board and presented it to her," says Áine. "We were all crying because she was so thrilled to have it."
Surfing culture often develops alongside skateboarding (skateboarding was once termed 'sidewalk surfing'), and this is happening in Mahabalipuram too.
The HolyStoked Collective, which has set up public skating parks free of cost in various locations in India, built a ramp just across from Kamali's house.
Poornabodh Nadavatt, the co-founder of HolyStoked and a surfing enthusiast, says Kamali is "a natural" on a skateboard.
Áine Edwards tells us that she was surprised, on passing by Kamali's house a few days ago, to see her skateboarding with ease. Kamali's mother told Áine that the girl had been going over to the ramp every day during the school holidays.
"She is really good, and she taught herself. She began by sitting on a board and rolling down the ramp," says Áine.
When Áine heard that Jamie Thomas was in town, she felt it would be a great opportunity for him to meet Kamali. Jamie taught Kamali a few tricks to skate down the steeper side of the ramp, and also shot the photos of her that have since gone viral.
Kamali, however, is blissfully unaware of her celebrity status. She's more entranced with the skateboard that Jamie gave her (his own) before he left.
"She takes a lot of care of it, and she shares it with all the other children at the skate ramp," says Áine.
While there's been a lot of attention on Kamali's story, both Poornabodh Nadavatt and Áine Edwards hope it will translate into opportunities for Kamali and other children like her.
Nadavatt says that HolyStoked is trying to figure out if an exchange programme could be arranged with a school in Sweden that has skateboarding as part of its curriculum.
Áine hopes that people who read Kamali's story will come forward with offers for sponsoring equipment or training, or even helping with the school fees — not just for the little girl, but for children from the community and elsewhere in India.
"Kamali is the first in her family to go to an English medium school," says Áine. "Her English is now better than my Tamil! It's a struggle for her family, but they're investing in her future. She's only six, so it's too early to say where skateboarding and surfing will take her, but it has already given her a lot of confidence."
Áine points out that in towns like Mahabalipuram, sports like surfing (and skateboarding) are shaking up the status quo, and providing youngsters a positive outlet to channel their energies. They're also giving little girls like Kamali a chance to shine in front of the world.
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