A critically acclaimed photographer 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 which opened in February.
Maganbhai Patel, known as Masterji, died 15 months after his first solo exhibition of portraits of people living in the West Midlands from the 1950s to the 2000s. The recognition of his work at the end of his life brought him ” quiet happiness, âsaid her daughter, Tarla Patel.
The new exhibition, in Compton Verney in Warwickshire, includes many photographs that have never been exhibited before. His early works were mainly black and white portraits of young men who came to seek 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 principal of a village school in India, arrived in the UK in 1951. Many immigrants found that only manual labor was available to them and he accepted a job in the General’s factory. Electrical Company in Coventry. He joined the company’s photography company and began taking photos in his spare time.
âI spent my early years in shared hostels and housing, mingling with other migrants who were offered the promise of a better job and a better life – people from Poland, Italy, Jamaica and the West Indies, âhe told The Guardian at the time of his first exhibition in 2016.
âI think of those times with fondness. My wife remembers the appalling housing conditions and the cold, but I remember the shared friendships, the dancing and pub outings, the piano and the singing.
His reputation as a photographer spread and he eventually gave up factory work to open a studio. âThe majority of my clients were from the Asian community, but there were people of many nationalities and origins who came to have their pictures taken,â he said.
Some of his clients wanted portraits to send to their families in India, demonstrating their success in their new life. One of them, a bus driver known only as Kelly, was pictured in a pinstripe suit and heavily waxed shoes. Another, Gordonbhai Bhakta, is shown lying on a table with a vase of flowers in the style of a movie star.
Masterji often improved his images. Oli McCall, curator at Compton Verney, said: âHe often retouched negatives to manipulate colors, so there is a painterly aspect to his work. Like many great portrait painters, he too kept a prop and object store in the studio to add certain details to his photos, from pens and books to flowers and toys. It is a tradition that dates back to the Renaissance, and by using common or garden objects, Masterji brought it up to date, in its inimitable style.
The family’s photo studio was always busy, Tarla Patel said. âWe lived above the studio and there were always clients downstairs. Dad was very talkative and personable, and his job allowed him to interact with people.
His wife, Ramaben Patel, ran the commercial side of the business, developed photographs and took pictures herself. His contribution to Masterji’s success is highlighted in the exhibition.
âMy mother had to deal with the community around her. Perhaps that is why she did not pursue photography in its own right. She still doesn’t fully recognize his role, but I’m glad he’s recognized in this show, âsaid Tarla.
Her parents were reluctant to talk about the challenges immigrants face, especially racism. They belonged to a generation grateful for being able to live and work in Britain, she said.
âWe often broke our store window and when the police arrived they were not very helpful. I remember having this worry at night about whether the windows would still be intact in the morning. It happened; you just swept it up and ordered a new drink.
The exhibit is accompanied by recordings of oral histories of people from Coventry’s South Asian community speaking about the challenges many migrants face after arriving in the UK, including racism and economic hardship.
Shortly before his death, 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 in Compton Verney, Warwickshire, from February 12 to May 22.