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The fakir and the firangi

French artist Michel Testard is in Delhi with an exhibition of his paintings of India created over two decades

With an engineering degree from Paris followed by an MBA from INSEAD, Michel Testard never knew he would end up as a painter in India. One visit to the country, and he was inspired to go beyond his job as a business consultant in France and explore his natural talent for drawing.

That was in 1999, when he came to attend the birthday party of a classmate from INSEAD. His first vivid memory was of riding a horse alongside his friend at midnight to India Gate. After this he went on a trip to Jaipur, from where his artistic journey began.

Testard is showcasing his paintings in an exhibition for the first time in India. Done over a period of almost two decades, the exhibition titled “Twenty years of wandering by a Firangi” is based on themes like music, landscape, forts, ruins and people of India. Inspired by India’s incredible variety and mystery, his work ranges from scenes in the busy streets of the city to recreating the grandeur of forts and havelis. Beggars, street musicians, even hotel waiters form the subjects of his cartoon sketches. Colourful characters from the spiritual spectrum like swamis, gurus and maharajas always impress him. “I am captivated with the serene and beautiful faces of old people from rural India. I always associate them with wisdom,” he says.

Riding his motorbike, he has travelled across several places like Ladakh, Dharamshala, Jaipur, Varanasi and others. Some of his early sketches were from his trip to the opium ceremony in Rajasthan. For those who are not aware, Bisnoi villagers from Western Rajasthan greet visitors by offering them opium dissolved in water.

From his school days, Testard had started sketching in his notebook whenever he got bored in class, which was ‘pretty frequent’. “During catechism lessons, I used to draw portraits of Jesus as that kept me listening.” Michel believes his love for drawing was inherited from his grandfather, a sculptor.
Being a business consultant, Michel instinctively used art to communicate with clients from multinational companies. He continues with his business along with travelling and sketching in India, though he likes to identify himself more as a painter now.

Before visiting India, he had grown a strange fascination with fakirs and gurus, not knowing that he would actually meet them one day. Her made several sketches of them with ropes and cobras, one of which he submitted as an image for a college annual meet invitation card, back in 1975. The administration banned it from being published but the students loved it, he adds.

On exploring the country, Michel discovered that forts and ruins attracted him the most. The process of construction along with destruction appealed to him. Starting from small ink sketches of forts he gradually started sketching ‘abstract forts’, where he created a fort from his imagination by using only a few strokes of ink and wash.

Reflecting on the rapid urban growth in India, Michel has also created a series of sketches which he calls ‘Mad Xima City’. Here he attempts to paint a picture of a polluted megapolis along with the congested slums.

Through his exhibition, he hopes to offer people a glimpse and impression of everything in India, in a way they have not seen before. So, head down to Bikaner house from May 17 to 27 to experience India from the eyes of a firangi.