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Exhibition A community revealed through an affectionate lens

JOHN GREEN recommends the work of immigrant photographer Maganbhai Patel who immortalised Asian immigrant life in Coventry

EXHIBITION
Through the Lens of Masterji
Compton Verney, Warwickshire

THE lives of African and Afro-Caribbean communities in Britain have been photographically documented but little of the lives of Asian communities has been accorded any prominence. 

It’s therefore particularly interesting to see a belated recognition of the work of Indian-born, Coventry resident Maganbhai Patel, known affectionately as Masterji.

After the war, the industrial city of Coventry was in dire need of workers for its numerous factories and its public services.

As a result, it experienced a significant influx of workers from the Indian subcontinent seeking work in its car and textile factories and driving the buses.

These immigrants filled those vacancies left by the war and took on jobs that local workers were unwilling to do.

Maganbhai Patel (1924-2018), was born in South Gujarat, where he had been a headmaster in a village school.

This was not enough for him and news from friends in England made him try his luck there too.

He arrived at Liverpool’s dockside in January 1951, with only a small brown metal case and a photograph of his mother.

For these migrants to postwar Britain, almost all the jobs available were manual.

Patel found work at the General Electric (GEC) factory in Coventry. He was not afraid of hard work and enjoyed tinkering with machinery and making friends among his fellow workers.

While working there, he joined the Indian Workers’ Association and the factory photography society.

Having regular work allowed him to save and buy a small Box Brownie camera, with which he started taking photographs.

Family and friends would ask him to take their photographs, often just to send home to India.

They nicknamed him “Master” in reference to his former job as a schoolmaster, and as years went by this morphed into “Masterji.”

To begin with, he worked from home. As word of his photographic skills spread, he was hired for weddings and other social events.

As a consequence, his work at GEC started falling behind, and instead of completing his night shift, he often fell asleep.

The factory foreman gave him a warning, and it was then that he decided to open his own photography studio on Coventry’s Stoney Stanton Road in 1969, called Master’s Art Studio and it is still open today.

Masterji’s photographs, taken over the course of more than 50 years, now represent a unique and evocative archive of the faces and lived experiences of those early migrants who came to the city and made it their home.

Although not to be ranked among the great photographers, Masterji’s work is significant, because it represents a valuable record of immigrant life through the eyes of a fellow immigrant during that time when many from the former colonial countries were arriving in Britain to help rebuild the country after the war.

His collection of work is a mix of early black-and-white photographs from the 1950s to colour images from the 1970s onwards.

Masterji’s bread-and-butter work was studio portraits, weddings and private functions but beyond that he recorded more intimate scenes from family life and on the streets around him.

His sitters invariably gaze into the distance, in fixed poses, looking smart, dressed in the fashions of the time, trying to hide the hardship of their everyday lives, looking towards a brighter future.

The photos make visible an important strand of Coventry’s social history, documenting the changes not only in the lives of the immigrant community but also in the photographic medium itself.

As colour photography came about, his portraits began capturing a new generation of British-born children of parents who had settled in Coventry. These photographs are full of vibrant colour.

Masterji is a man whose photography only came to be known more widely in 2016, when, at the age of 94 years, he was given his first solo exhibition, launched as part of Coventry’s bid to become Britain’s 2021 City of Culture.

In 2017 the first book of his work was published and he received an honorary doctorate from Coventry University, in recognition of his contribution to photography and heritage in the city.

Through the Lens of Masterji opens at Compton Verney, a beautifully landscaped historic manor house 20-odd miles south of Coventry.

This exhibition presents the most comprehensive survey of Masterji’s work, bringing together portraits taken across his five-decades-long career, including a number of works which have not been exhibited before.

The portraits are accompanied by oral history interviews with members of that pioneering generation of south Asian migrants to Coventry.

Opens February 12 until May 22. Ticket price per adult: £14.90. [email protected].

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