Internet rages over outdoor gym of Hindu puppets

Do you think you can walk and chew gum at the same time? How about practicing and appreciating art at the same time? This is exactly what visual artist Diptej Vernekar challenged the public to do with his large-scale installation “Incarnation Park” (2022) at the fifth edition of the Serendipity Arts Festival in the Indian coastal state of Goa last December. With the help of local craftsmen and engineers, Vernekar attached large puppets of Hindu avatars to outdoor gym equipment, allowing viewers to manipulate the puppet’s movements through repetitive motions.

Vernekar hails from a small Goan village himself and grew up immersed in the visual culture of Goa’s famous moving tableaus and puppet shows. From the sprawling floats of the Shigmotsav parade (similar to Holi) to the detailed moving sculptures crafted for Sangod Utsav (a canoe-oriented tradition commemorating Lord Ganesha), Vernekar has always been fascinated by the mechanics behind the movements of these elaborate ones religious artifacts.

Skip to 00:16 to see festival goers interacting with Incarnation Park (2022).

Vernekar told Hyperallergic that these artifacts are traditionally handcrafted and manually operated by specialized artisans and stowed away for safekeeping until the next festival approaches, making them inaccessible to the general public outside of the spectacle. Incarnation Park invited the public to participate in the mechanical workings that support the puppets and gave people the opportunity to use their own bodies to create the grandiose movements that can usually be seen from a distance.

The fitness machine engages each user’s muscle memory through basic push-and-pull movements that pull on cables connected to various parts of the puppets: a machine rotates the head and retracts the snake tongue of Narakasura (Lord Krishna’s rival) while another did the ten-headed demon king Ravana (from the Ramayana epic) in squats.

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Vision “Incarnation Park” (2022)

Incarnation Park had a viral moment last year when the @indiaculturalhub Instagram account posted a series of viewers using the gym equipment to manipulate the giant puppets. From children to grandparents, everyone was invited to take part in this installation and show their strength. The role regained traction last month as the sound used gained popularity. However, some were not pleased that Vernekar had become acquainted with the Hindu avatars.

A crowd of religious fundamentalists, better known in India as Hindu nationalists, criticized Vernekar for turning the avatars “into toys to play with.” Dozens of commenters demanded that the installation be dismantled and immediately banned for being “disrespectful” and “deriding” Ravana and Sant (Saint) Tukaram Maharaj, the character with a sitar seated on the flying eagle.

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

“When these dolls are used at folk festivals, they are religious, so you can’t really play with them,” he explained. “I have a good relationship with the artisan community and somehow they believed in me. But it was the local fanatical groups who got upset about how the gods were depicted in the gymnastic pose. There weren’t any issues with the female or male roles or anything, but you can’t mess with the gods.”

Negative comments on @indiaculturalhub scroll requesting removal of installation (Screenshots Rhea Nayyar/Hyperallergic)

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

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“I believe in the philosophy that all life is made of mistakes, so I’m very interested in the process and not the product,” said Vernekar. “But when I received this grant, I realized that I had to work on the design of a final product, so I was very interested in investigating the flaws in this technological development while producing this installation.”

During the development of the project, Vernekar came across two engineers in an online video who happened to be nearby, needed work and were very excited to help with the installation. After recruiting them for Incarnation Park, Vernekar said they really challenged his installation to be more than what it was and designed all the mechanics. For that alone, the Serendipity Arts Festival seems aptly named.

A puppet glows green at night