Disc World

Chennai’s Ultimate Frisbee players navigate one of India’s only mixed-gender sports

31 December 2018
Ultimate Frisbee is used to teach children about gender equality and resolving conflict.
karen dias
Ultimate Frisbee is used to teach children about gender equality and resolving conflict.
karen dias

“Let me introduce you to everyone before we start practising,” Hariharan K, a tall, lanky 24-year-old, said to me. It was a September night at Chennai’s Besant Nagar beach. We were next to a brightly lit Ferris wheel. A generator for an ice gola stall whirred loudly. A few steps away from it, a large group of boys and girls were huddled close together, watching YouTube videos. Hariharan, the captain of the Fly Wild Ultimate Frisbee team, gathered them in a circle.

There were around twenty-five players, 12 of whom were girls. They gather thrice a week to practise under the floodlights on the beach. Each session is preceded by a warm-up, sprint and other games. While I watched a practice game, an argument broke out between one girl and a male team member about a foul move. The game came to a standstill, but they were both smiling, and ended the argument with a high-five.

Ultimate Frisbee is one of the only mixed-gender sports in the country. Matches are played between teams of seven players each—either four men and three women, or vice versa. Hariharan recalled that when he started playing six years previously, the boys in his team used to tease the girls, but that this dynamic changed over time because it was mandatory for each team to have at least eight female players in its roster. “We would like more girls to play but the late evening practice sessions on the beach and the out-of-state travel required to participate in tournaments is a deterrent for many girls because their families object,” he said. “Many girls come to play out of curiosity but then have to work or go to college and give it up.”

Hariharan lives in Urur Olcott Kuppam, a fishing village at the northern end of Besant Nagar beach, a few hundred metres from where the team plays. Most of the team’s members, including Hariharan, are from low-income families in the village, with parents who depend on fishing for their livelihoods or work in low-paid jobs as cleaners, drivers and daily-wage workers.

Two of the best players in the Fly Wild team, Hariharan said, were 18-year-old Monika Shankar and her 15-year-old sister, Deepika. Monika told me that she has travelled to several states across India to play. She was the youngest player in the Indian team at the 2016 World Ultimate and Guts Championship—the premier tournament for national teams organised by the World Flying Disc Federation, the sport’s governing body—in London.

Karen Dias is a Mumbai-based documentary photographer whose work focusses on stories about women, the environment and indigenous communities.

Keywords: gender sports mixed gender