Masterji is a Coventry original, the art of photography his obsession for more than sixty years. He documented the South-Asian community in Coventry with a theatrical, playful eye that brought out the character of his customers and defines his style, and also reveals much about how a migrant community was keen to be portrayed.
Humble, graceful, quiet, and attentive. Masterji made you feel you were centre of the world
Statement from Photo Archive Miners on the death of Masterji
Photo Archive Miners are sad to learn of the death of Masterji. He was 96.
The first time we met Masterji he was humble and graceful, quiet and attentive. The sparkle in his eye, toothy grin and his soft handshake made us feel quite special. As with most emotions, it’s hard to put to words. We were a little elated by the attention, by his soft command that right now we were the most important thing in the room.
We began to work with him and his family on his archive in 2015. Looking through his amazing photographs we could see that our experience was all too common. The sitters in his photographs were just like us. This was his gift.
The exhibition in Coventry in November 2016 brought in many families to see their loved ones, and in some cases, their young selves. As word spread, thousands visited over just a few weeks. What people told us most was that Masterji made them feel like a film star. That for a minute, with the camera pointed at them, they were centre of the world.
Masterji's work is significant. His early work pre-dates the more celebrated photography of Vanley Burke, Pogus Ceaser and Keith Piper by at least twenty years. His explorations were extraordinary. No one else did it. Please do not underestimate the effort he made. In 1951, in a foreign culture, with racism accepted and the norm, Masterji began documenting something he could feel was vital. He kept to it for fifty years. Masterji knew that for non-white person to take the photograph, to own the means of reproducing the image, was significant because his sitters responded differently to him. Gone was a colonial formality. People could be themselves – and Masterji made them feel themselves more than anyone.
So through his photographs, which will live on in exhibitions, books and photographic collections, we can celebrate the master as a true teacher, a philosopher and gentleman. We are indebted to his teaching that above all, it's people that count. Rest in peace, Masterji.
Ben, Jason, & Mark
Masterji, the book. This is a wonderful book, sensitively portraying a community that has been invisible to photographic and sociological traditions.
Following the huge success of exhibitions in Coventry, Mumbai and New York, 95-year-old Coventry photographer Masterji is releasing a new photographic book of highlights from his archive.
Featuring 66 images from across his career, the book celebrates Coventry’s South Asian immigrants since his own arrival from India in 1951. Ranging from intimate individual portraits to groups of friends and family, the pictures make visible an important strand of the city’s social history.
The book includes an introduction by Dr Mark Sealy who highlights Masterji’s importance to British photographic history.
Masterji’s daughter Tarla said: “Masterji gives a voice to those forgotten in the past, at a time when people were facing adversity in jobs, education and housing because of their colour. This book shows proud people, determined and confident in who they are.”
It was designed by Ian Jones and printed in Holland by Rik van Leeuwen of Wonderful Books.
Masterji presents a vision of how these new citizens viewed their place in Coventry’s future: successful workers in a modernist, industrial phoenix rising from the devastation of World War II. Props and lighting, sharp suits and smiles reveal their promise and potential.
In reality work was less easy to come by for migrants. Instead, these engineers and teachers started family businesses or began precarious, low paid work on the buses or factory floors. While Coventry enjoyed its post-war boom, many of the migrant population looked in from the outside, by-passed by prosperity.
This is true for Masterji himself. Now at the age of 95, his first solo exhibition showcases the portrait and family photography that became his focus whilst other, well-networked Coventry photographers undertook higher paying commercial work.
Masterji’s story chimes in a Britain once again riven with social division, but his photography, his art, celebrates the character, the potential and the joy that newcomers can bring to a city.
The Box, Fargo Village, Coventry 3rd 23rd November 2016
Over 130 people a day visiting the exhibition, including many people from outside of Coventry. People were identified in the photographs: mothers, sisters, uncles, fathers, husbands.
We were so pleased to host Rising Festival and Positive Youth Foundation during our run, bringing our work to their audiences too.
The exhibition of 70 Masterji images, including hand made silver-gelatin prints by Jason Scott Tilley, and colour prints by Andrew Moore. They were framed in Coventry by Tony on Spon Street.
Visitors were able to take their selfies using Masterji's original props. This proved very popular on social media. Over the three weeks of the exhibition, #Masterji received over 900,000 interactions on Twitter alone.
Akara Art Gallery, Colaba, Mumbai 9th - 23rd March 2017
Masterji was invited to contribute to FOCUS Festival Mumbai 2017, a photographic biennale curated by Elsie Foster Vander Elst and Mathieu Foss. The trip was generously supported by Coventry City of Culture Trust, Roger Medwell and Gersh Subhra.
Masterji's work fitted nicely into the festival's theme of 'memory' as it reflected on the past of south-Asian migrants to Coventry, addressing issues of identity and belonging.
The photographs were curated by Jason Tilley of Photo Miners and Masterji's energetic daughter Tarla, and exhibited in the clean and air-conditioned space of Akara Art Gallery in Colaba, behind the world famous Gateway of India.
The response was amazing: so many people were delighted to see the photographs, and discussed their social impact as well as the art of the photographer. Lectures, walking tours and private discussions, as well as newspaper reports meant Masterji was on many lips.
Lightfield Festival, Hudson, New York, August 12th - September 30th 2017
Masterji was also invited to participate in the Lightfield Festival this year, his first exhibition in the USA. Thanks go to Anna Van Lenten for approaching Photo Miners, who were delighted to send the hand printed silver gelatin black and white prints to exhibit.