Think you can walk and chew gum at the same time? How about exercising and appreciating art simultaneously? Visual artist Diptej Vernekar challenged the public to do just that with his large-scale installation “Incarnation Park” (2022) at the fifth installment of the Serendipity Arts Festival in the coastal Indian state of Goa last December. With the help of local craftsmen and engineers, Vernekar attached large puppets of Hindu avatars to outdoor gym equipment, enabling his viewers to manipulate the puppet movements through repetitive motions.

Hailing from a small village in Goa himself, Vernekar grew up immersed in the visual culture of Goa’s famous moving tableaux and puppetry. From the expansive floats of the Shigmotsav parade (akin to Holi) to the detailed moving sculptures made for Sangod Utsav (a canoe-oriented tradition commemorating Lord Ganesha), Vernekar was always fascinated by the mechanics behind the movements of these elaborate religious artifacts.

YouTube video
Skip to 00:16 to see festival visitors interacting with “Incarnation Park” (2022).

Vernekar told Hyperallergic that these artifacts are traditionally hand-crafted and manually operated by specialized artisans and stowed away for safekeeping until the next festival approaches, rendering them inaccessible to the general public beyond the spectacle. “Incarnation Park” invited the public to participate in the mechanical functions that support the puppets, giving people the opportunity to use their own bodies to generate the grandiose motions usually seen from afar.

The gym equipment engages with any user’s muscle memory through basic push and pull motions that tug on cables connected to different parts of the puppets: One machine turns the head and retracts the serpentine tongue of Narakasura (the rival of Lord Krishna), while another has the ten-headed demon king Ravana (of the Ramayana epic) doing squats.

A wide view of “Incarnation Park” (2022)

“Incarnation Park” had a viral moment last year when the Instagram account @indiaculturalhub posted a reel of viewers using the gym equipment to manipulate the enormous puppets. From children to grandparents, anyone was invited to participate and show off their strength in this installation. The reel recently gained traction again last month when the sound it was using gained popularity. However, some were not pleased with Vernekar’s familiarizing of the Hindu avatars.

A slew of religious fundamentalists, better known in India as Hindu nationalists, criticized Vernekar for turning the avatars “into toys to be played with.” Dozens of commenters demanded that the installation be taken down and banned immediately, stating that it was “disrespectful,” and “making fun” of Ravana and Sant (Saint) Tukaram Maharaj, the figure with a sitar seated on the flying eagle.

Vernekar said the organizing committee of Serendipity Arts Festival suggested this type of backlash was possible before he began the project.

“When these puppets are used during popular festivals, they are religion-oriented, so you cannot actually play with them,” he explained. “I have a good relationship with the community of artisans and somehow they believed in me. But it was the local fanatical groups that were upset with the way the gods were rendered in the gymming position. There were no issues with the feminine or masculine roles or anything, but you cannot fuck with the gods.”

Vernekar changed his Instagram message settings to filter out negative comments for a while, but he was otherwise unfazed by the offended responses as the project was born out of childhood curiosity and a quest for accessibility. Vernekar, who works primarily with charcoal, said this was only the second time he has engaged with the public on this scale through his practice.

“I believe in the philosophy that all life is out of error, so I am very interested in process over product,” Vernekar said. “But when I received this grant, I understood that I had to work on designing an end product, so I was very interested in exploring the errors of this technological evolution while producing this installation.”

During the project’s development, Vernekar came across two engineers in an online video who happened to be close by, in need of work, and very enthusiastic about assisting with the installation. After recruiting them for “Incarnation Park,” Vernekar said that they really challenged his installation to be more than what it was and designed all of the mechanics. Based on that alone, it seems like the Serendipity Arts Festival is aptly named.

A puppet lit green at night

Rhea Nayyar (she/her) is a New York-based teaching artist who is passionate about elevating minority perspectives within the academic and editorial spheres of the art world. Rhea received her BFA in Visual...