Decades-spanning portraits of immigrant life in Coventry to go on display

By Harriet Sherwood Arts and culture correspondent
Untitled, 1970s, by Masterji
An untitled photo by Masterji from the 1970s. Photograph: Masterji/© The Masterji Estate

A photographer who received critical acclaim in his 90s for his work documenting the lives of south Asian immigrants over more than half a century is the subject of a new exhibition opening in February.

Maganbhai Patel, known as Masterji, died 15 months after his first solo show of portraits of people living in the West Midlands from the 1950s until the 2000s. The recognition of his work at the end of his life brought him “quiet happiness”, said his daughter, Tarla Patel.

The new exhibition, at Compton Verney in Warwickshire, includes many photographs that have not been displayed before. His early works were predominantly black-and-white portraits of young men who had come to find work in postwar Coventry. Later photographs reflected a more established community, with an increasing number of family portraits commissioned to mark events such as weddings.

Masterji, who was the headmaster of a village school in India, arrived in the UK in 1951. Many immigrants found that only manual work was available to them, and he took a job in the General Electrical Company factory in Coventry. He joined the company’s photographic society and began taking pictures in his spare time.

Masterji self-portrait
Self-portrait with Kokila and balloon, 1971. Photograph: Masterji/© The Masterji Estate

“I spent my first years in hostels and shared housing, mixing with the other migrants who were offered the promise of work and a better life – people from Poland, Italy, Jamaica and the West Indies,” he told the Guardian at the time of his first exhibition in 2016.

“I think of this time with fondness. My wife remembers the terrible state of housing conditions and the cold, but I remember the shared friendships, the dancing and going to the pubs, playing on the piano and singing.”

His reputation as a photographer spread, and eventually he gave up the factory work to open a studio. “The majority of my customers were from the Asian community, but there were people from many nationalities and backgrounds coming to have their photographs taken,” he said.

Some of his clients wanted portraits to send home to their families in India, demonstrating their success in their new lives. One, a bus conductor known only as Kelly, was photographed in a pinstripe suit and highly polished shoes. Another, Gordonbhai Bhakta, is pictured reclining on a table with a vase of flowers in the style of a film star.

Portrait of Gordonbhai Bhakta
Portrait of Gordonbhai Bhakta, 1960s. Photograph: Masterji/© The Masterji Estate

Masterji often enhanced his images. Oli McCall, a curator at Compton Verney, said: “He often touched up the negatives to manipulate the colours, so there’s a painterly aspect to his work. Like many great portrait artists, he too kept a store of props and objects in the studio to add certain details into his photos, from pens and books to flowers and toys. It’s a tradition that dates back to the Renaissance, and by using common or garden objects, Masterji brought it up to date, in his own, inimitable style.”

The family’s photographic studio was always busy, said Tarla Patel. “We lived on top of the studio, and there were always customers downstairs. Dad was very talkative and personable, and his work gave him interaction with people.”

His wife, Ramaben Patel, ran the business side of the enterprise, developed photographs and took pictures herself. Her contribution to Masterji’s success is highlighted in the exhibition.

“My mother had to contend with the community around her. That may be why she didn’t pursue photography in her own right. She still doesn’t fully acknowledge her role, but I’m glad it’s recognised in this exhibition,” said Tarla.

Young girl wearing sunglasses
Untitled, 1970s. Photograph: Masterji/© The Masterji Estate

Her parents were reluctant to speak about the challenges facing immigrants, especially racism. They were of a generation that was grateful for the opportunity to live and work in Britain, she said.

“We did get our shop window broken a lot of times, and when the police came, they were unhelpful. I remember having this worry at night over whether the windows would still be intact in the morning. It happened; you just swept it up and got on with ordering new glass.”

The exhibition is accompanied by oral history recordings of people from the south Asian community in Coventry talking about the challenges many migrants faced after arriving in the UK, including racism and economic hardship.

Shortly before he died, Masterji received an honorary doctor of arts degree from Coventry University, in recognition of his outstanding contribution to photography and the city’s heritage.

Through the Lens of Masterji is at Compton Verney, Warwickshire, from 12 February to 22 May.


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