Introduction | Ben Kyneswood
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Maganbhai Patel is better known as Masterji, a portrait photographer of the Coventry South-Asian community. In November 2016 his first solo exhibition opened to massive acclaim, with features on local, national and international television, online and in local and national newspapers. In March 2017 his black and white photographs will be a centrepiece of the Mumbai Focus International Photography Festival. This from a man celebrating his ninety-fourth year. In this article, we reflect on the art of the Master through his portrayal of the lives of South-Asian migrants to Coventry during the second half of the twentieth century.
Masterji and family
Departure and arrival
Masterji left his home and job as a schoolmaster in Surat, Gujarat soon after India gained independence from the British, meeting up in Coventry with friends in 1951. Unfulfilled by work on the factory floor at the General Electric Company (GEC), Masterji sought the company of photographic creatives, buying a new Kodak Box Brownie to replace the one he’d left in India. He spent evenings on courses at Lanchester College of Technology and weekends with the GEC Photographic Society, becoming friends with now legendary British photographer John Blakemore. He learned to hone his skills and knowledge: not just how to use an enlarger, but how to think about photography as interpretation, as his way of writing.
In the years after the Second World War, Coventry sought to maintain its place as a wealthy industrial city despite the devastation wrought by Nazi bombs. This was a city of fifty motor manufacturers, including Triumph, Jaguar and Rover; it was the home of jet engine inventor Sir Frank Whittle and to international companies Courtaulds, Alfred Herbert and GEC. Workers were attracted by the jobs and the wages: Coventrians earned at least 20 per cent more than the UK average thanks to demand for labour, strong union representation and a socialist local government. To support industry and its workers, local government invested heavily in public services and new housing, and oversaw a renewed city centre based on the modernist principles of Le Corbusier: Coventry promised a machine of a city for work and living, a blueprint for the future.
Despite the grand vision, some areas remained in need of renewal. Because properties were cheaper to buy, migrants moved into bomb-damaged areas like Spon End and Hillfields, with their tight Victorian streets and lack of amenities like indoor bathrooms. Masterji was no different. He moved to Widdrington Road, Radford, near the city centre and close to the Daimler motorcar factories that had been targeted by German bombers. These areas, previously home to the Victorian entrepreneurs that gave Coventry its industrial base, became stigmatised by ignorance of migrant cultures and by criminality thriving in the derelict houses and streets.
Migrants came to Coventry as engineers and teachers, with enough money to get them to England and start working. Yet work could be precarious, and often was, on the buses or factory floor. In the 1950s, the gleaming tiles and consumer goods of Coventry’s new houses and the smart offices of industry were as out of reach for the migrants as if they had stayed in India. Further, social attitudes didn’t adapt to change at the same pace as the planned physical landscape. Masterji sought to challenge public perceptions of the migrant community. His photography gave migrants status, a right to physical space to claim their own. In doing so, his customers were not portrayed as invisible and poor, but confident, smart and full of potential. In Masterji’s photographs, these were not migrants but Coventrians.
Settling in – black and white portraits
Masterji initially took portraits in his living room in Widdrington Road. His subjects included visitors such as Gordanbhai Bhakta who later moved to America, and Kelly, a handsome bus conductor. These men are not photographed to focus on their features but rather on the physical space they inhabit: the props, curtains, walls and flooring place them in Coventry as real people. Gordanbhai is amused, amusing and confident, the book and glasses hinting at knowledge and study. Kelly poses like he owns the stage on which he stands and one can imagine the assured stride of this well-dressed man as he later walked towards the city centre. Other images present different sides to the same story: Mr Khan in his sunglasses with his white wife; Mr Samra and his beautiful Alsatian dog; three well-presented young children, the boys with books suggesting a bright future; and a young man sitting solo, wearing a leather jacket. These were not the invisible migrants of popular myth but people given a stake by Masterji, photographed not as models but as people.
‘People, they came to me,’ says Masterji. ‘I made them happy. They liked me.’
Master’s Art Studio
Masterji’s local success led in 1969 to a licence to start Master’s Art Studio. The name tells us he did not consider himself merely as a studio photographer but as one with a message. Customer demand precipitated a move to include 35mm colour, and in colour he continued to place his customers in a space they are invited to own. This is true of the defiant older lady in an expensive fur coat. The teenage pairs, however, pose a little apprehensively, uncertain, perhaps caught between their heritage and the future, between youth and adulthood. Their clothes, colourful but formal, and in the case of the young women, a mix of Eastern and Western styles, reflect the dilemmas faced by the children of migrants.
Now ninety-four, Masterji has spent more than a lifetime in one of England’s most historic cities, photographing a community as it settled and changed against a backdrop of economic and social uncertainty. Masterji presents his customers as real people in a real space, not as ciphers or labels. His photographs serve as social documents to tell us that here was an artist working with the people to give them the confidence to stake a claim not as migrants but as Coventrians. The photographs teach a lesson that needs to resonate loudly in a divided Brexit Britain: if we are to heal the wounds in our culture, we must begin by seeing our neighbours as individuals.
Boy in a leather jacket
Portrait of Pradeep, son of Ratilalbhai Patel, a family friend. Home studio, Widdrington Road, 1957.
Gordanbhai Bhakta was a guest of mine who stayed for two weeks, and had travelled from Preston to see me. He eventually moved to America. Home studio, Widdrington Road, 1957–68.
Mr Samra and his Alsatian
Mr Samra died in 1975. His wife came to my exhibition in Coventry this year and had her photograph taken next to this one. His whole family travelled to see the picture in the exhibition. Home studio, Widdrington Road, late 1950s.
Portrait of Kelly, a bus conductor, who later went on to buy an off-licence and move to London. He lived well and loved fashion; my wife remembers him as a handsome, talkative man. The background, studio curtain and valance were made especially for the room by an African-Indian tailor. Home studio, Widdrington Road, 1957–68.
Mr Khan and his wife
Mr Khan was a bus conductor. He and his wife had one daughter and left their house to her when they moved to Canada. Home visit, late 1950s.
Masterji’s son, Ravindra Patel
Portrait of my son, Ravindra, in natural light from the window. My wife would have got the toys either from Woolworths or the large department store, Owen Owen. Master’s Art Studio, 1970.
Vimla’s mother in a fur coat
Vimla worked in a sewing factory. The family loved having their photographs taken and I was invited to take photographs at their house, as well as at weddings and parties. Master’s Art Studio, 1970s.
Two teenage girls
Sitters unknown. They would have come to the shop by themselves. Master’s Art Studio, 1974.
Two teenage boys
Sitters unknown. These Bengali boys wanted to send photographs to relatives back home. A lot of customers visited the studio to do this. They loved having their photographs taken. Master’s Art Studio, 1974.
Khan from Pakistan
Khan was a handsome young man who loved fashion. The hand-painted background is by a Hungarian artist I befriended in a café by the Coventry Registry Office, in the 1960s. He painted three large scenic screens for me, including this one. Master’s Art Studio, 1982.
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