Nick Sethi, Khichdi (Kitchari)

JTF (just the facts): Published in 2018 by Dashwood Books (here). Softcover, 432 pages, with 846 color photographs. There are no texts or essays included. In an edition of 1000 copies. Design by Brian Paul Lamotte. (Cover and spread shots below.)

Khichdi (Kitchari) is also available in a special edition (no book link available). This version includes a signed book with silver edging in a custom-made box covered in recycled packaging vinyl. Each copy is unique and features items sourced and created in the markets of New Delhi, including a hand-painted statue, a t-shirt, a watch, vinyl truck decals and stickers, holographic religious lithographic prints, as well as 5 additional books/zines produced in New Delhi wrapped in holy thread, and an editioned c-print and screen print. In an edition of 20 copies.

Comments/Context: Khichdi (Kitchari) is the first major monograph by the New York based photographer Nick Sethi. Sethi was the first in his family to be born in the United States, after his parents moved here from India. When he turned seventeen, his family went back for a year, and because Sethi grew up not speaking Hindi, he felt rather disconnected from his Indian heritage. He turned to photography to build his connection with the people and culture, ultimately starting a decade long project and making multiple trips back to India.

Khichdi encapsulates Sethi’s experience in India, as he actively observes its constantly changing cultural and social landscape, and the nation’s energy, intensity, and staggering diversity come alive through the photobook’s undoubtedly excessive visual flow of more than 800 photographs. The book is overstuffed with vibrant visual stimuli, throwing us right into the middle of the country’s overcrowded streets, the smell of fresh spices and food, the bright colors, and the constant noise. The title of the book refers to a traditional Indian dish, a one-pot meal made from rice, lentils, vegetables, and spices. Khichdi is eaten throughout India, and the dish has many regional interpretations and variations (as well as various spellings). Sethi sees the many versions of khichdi as a perfect metaphor for his own multi-layered experience in India.

As a photobook, Khichdi feels raw and rough, yet this is unexpected and exciting, as this approach mindfully balances the surfaces of intentional cheapness with the foundation of a carefully crafted object. All the elements of the book, from the photographs themselves and their sequencing to the design and specific production processes, are there to reinforce the overall experience. The book was produced in close collaboration with the designer Brian Paul Lamotte, who also travelled to India, and together with Sethi, spent time on press to ensure that the production process matched the intent of the artist, often experimenting on the go. The book is printed on locally sourced glossy paper, and its weight is immediately apparent. The embossed cover features a colorful mix of images from Hindu mythology, printed in a low quality, slightly misaligned reproduction. It has a rough open spine with the title in handwriting, and page edges are hand painted in red; the back cover contains factual information about the book, and its broken English seems only fitting.

The photobook’s central structure embraces and incorporates the chaos and dynamism of India, without giving into obvious clichés. The flow is intentionally intense, as the pages are packed with images, leaving little or no breathing space around them. Sethi mixes full spread photographs with snapshots, selfies, screenshots, and manipulated images, densely layering them and often placing as many as two dozen images on a single spread. He considers this aggregation of visual elements key to the visual experience.

A sequence of three images of smiling kids getting extremely close to the camera serves as an introduction, setting a cheerful and welcoming mood. It also positions Sethi as an outsider, one who is both fully submerged in his surroundings, and yet aware of his unique position within it. It is immediately clear that people are the main focus of his work. His photographs, almost all of them shot outside, capture locals Sethi encountered and befriended during his years in India. When Sethi started his project, mobile phone cameras were still new, and taking an impromptu photograph felt rather special. That excitement is captured in many images, and Sethi’s selfies with locals are found throughout the book, stressing the idea of a shared cultural experience.

Sethi documents the world around him with an obsessive sense of passion. He is clearly enjoying himself, yet he remains an attentive and careful observer. His snapshots show a diverse range of people, often captured from multiple perspectives, which he then collages together – kids playing on the streets, a young man dressed in white taking yoga poses, boys climbing trees, elderly women carrying shopping bags, men standing next to cars, all of the action simply part of the bustle of everyday life. Many of these people live in poverty, yet Sethi avoids depicting its predictable stereotypes, focusing instead on a cheerful almost absurd reality. Sethi adds a sense of the chaotic atmosphere by photographing billboards (and occasionally Photoshopping himself in), busy traffic streets, comic appropriations of Western logos, glimpses of houses covered with layers of colourful fabrics, vans overloaded with goods, and market foods spread on plastic coverings. 

Throughout the book, vertical spreads turned sideways interrupt the action, with portraits of sadhus (Hindu holy men) taken during the festivals. Their nude, ash-smeared bodies, with heavy thick hair, fill most of the spreads, and the generous amount of space dedicated to them (compared to the other portraits) makes them immediately stand out. These portraits create pauses in the otherwise continuous visual narrative, and mixed with other festival photographs, these spreads also juxtapose the intermingled facets of Indian and Western cultures seen all around. Other full spreads depict nets of old pipes and rusty wires, as if stressing the intentionally recursive flow of the whole project – everything is tied together.

In the end, Khichdi is about creating an immersive, and sometimes overwhelming, photobook experience via a deliberately integrated approach to content, design, and construction. The very last spread depicts excited kids, their faces altered to enlarge their eyes, as they share a plate of khichdi, while a strip of smaller images featuring more kids runs at the bottom of the spread. Throughout these pages and many others, the people in the pictures are actively collaborating with Sethi, and this feeling of open, engaged partnership gives the book its bright jolt of life. Khichdi is intense, loud, energetic, human, and even ridiculous at times, just like the country it depicts.

Collector’s POV: Nick Sethi does not appear to have gallery representation at this time. Collectors interested in following up should likely connect directly with the artist via his website (linked in the sidebar).

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