Masterji's Portraits of Indian Migrants Show a People in Transition

An exhibition of photographs is a glimpse into the lives and looks of Indians who had moved to Britain in the 1950s and after.

Credit: Maganlal Patel

A nattily dressed dandy, in a suit and long hair; another one, also in a shiny new suit and with a resplendent moustache, posing with an Alsatian dog; two young girls, one wearing a salwar kameez the other in the fashionable skirt of the day; a three-member family dressed in their Sunday best; four youngsters with musical instruments, clearly a band of sorts and an Indian man with his English wife.

All these photographs are taken in a studio and, going by the hair styles and the cut of the clothes, clearly belong to the 1950s, ’60s and ‘70s. The studio could have been anywhere in India, except that it was in Coventry, a small town in the West Midlands in Britain.

They were taken by Maganbhai Patel, or Masterji, as he is popularly known because he had been a school master. The subjects were Indian migrants, who had moved to Britain for a better life and often wanted to get themselves photographed in their new environment. Many of these photographs were sent back to their families in India. Hints of their new life are already visible in the photographs – the young girls have begun adapting to the fashion of the day, even if tentatively, the men are often in suits and a tie, the kids have new toys.

Thousands of Indians had migrated to Britain in the 1950s, attracted by opportunities in a booming economy. Large numbers went to the smaller, industrial towns, where professionals labour was required, but it was not easy to find jobs. They were often met with resistance and prejudice from the locals.

Coventry, a major industrial hub, was one such town. It was a watch-making centre and also where important auto companies such as Rover and Jaguar were based. The ‘closed shops’ of the unions, however, were unhappy at allowing this influx and it was common to find the Indian worker getting less than the normal wage. Yet, they persisted and for the most part, succeeded and settled down.

Masterji was one such migrant. He couldn’t get a job as a teacher, so he began taking photographs of friends and sporting events. Soon he was in demand and was called for weddings, parties and studio portraits, both formal ones and for official documentation. Master’s Art Studio opened in 1969. He had a running business and was available to shoot anywhere, including in the subject’s home. Tarla Patel, Masterji’s daughter, says for him taking a photograph was another way of striking up a conversation; there was much empathy too – if a person couldn’t pay right away, he didn’t mind doing it on credit or even accepting a barter with groceries or takeaways. Soon, he was the photographer every Indian in Coventry went to.

In 2014, Masterji’s daughter met academic Ben Kynsewood and photographer/curator Jason Scott Tilley who were planning ‘People of India’, an exhibition of photographs in Coventry, and showed them her father’s negatives. They were astonished at the treasure trove and the three of them worked for months to clean and restore the negatives, a monumental task given that he had worked for almost 60 years. The result, in 2016, was a hugely successful exhibition called Masterji & Coventry, which was supported by the city to showcase its diversity, a much-needed effort at the time of Brexit. Kynseword says that Masterji’s popularity became evident when thousands of people came to see the exhibition and remarked that their fathers and families had been photographed by Masterji.

That exhibition is now showing in Mumbai, as part of the Focus festival of photography and Patel is delighted that his photographs have come back home. Masterji, now 94, could not make the trip, but his spirit is visible in the many photographs at the show.

For Tilley, an Anglo-Indian, with a family history in India going back to the 18th century, it is a continuum of sorts. His grandfather had worked for the Times of India in the 1930s and left for England after the second world war. He settled down in Coventry but did not continue photography, but just a few years later a man named Maganlal Patel came to the same town and picked up the threads.

Masterji is showing at the Aakaraart Gallery, Mumbai, till March 23

All photos are by Maganbhai Patel and are courtesy Tarla Patel

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