“I’m the first one in my family to be born outside of India so I’ve been travelling there my whole life,” American-born visual artist, Nick Sethi tells It’s Nice That. Having grown up in Floria, his family moved to India for a year in 2007 when he was 17. Despite his heritage, Sethi didn’t grow up speaking Hindi and so the move confronted him with things he didn’t understand but things he wanted to explore further nonetheless. “I started using photography as a way to interact with the country and people,” Sethi recalls. “2007 was a pre-mobile phone and selfie era so having your photograph taken was a bit more special, especially in a country like India.” It was during this trip that Sethi unknowingly began a decade-long project; one that charts the rapidly changing identity of a country through its people and their relationship to technology, gender and the influx of Western culture.
Over the years, Sethi returned to his country of origin, drawn by the opportunity it presented for him to learn but also collaborate with its inhabitants on an equal level. It wasn’t until 2011, however, that any hint that he may be creating a body of work emerged. “I met a six-year-old street kid named Bobicol who opened my eyes to shooting India in a new way and to building long-time relationships with people and situations,” he explains. That year, he released a small publication with Dashwood Books of the work he had made with Bobicol and his family but “by the next time we met up, we had both changed and so had the environment,” Sethi remarks. This experience prompted a new working practice, one of constant exploration and intention to document changes.
On his returning travels, Sethi began to look for a friend to accompany him and experience the country with. “Although India is a magical place, working there requires a specific type of personality, as you need to be able to adapt to the conditions and have a pretty high tolerance for difficult situations,” he explains. As a result, he invited his long-term friend and collaborator Brian Paul Lamotte, a graphic designer and publisher, along for a trip in April 2016. Once in India, the pair started discussing the possibility of turning Sethi’s photos into a book. Born from Sethi and Lamotte’s shared experience, Khichdi (Kitchari) which has just been published by Dashwood Books, is a 432-page book containing 846 photographs taken over a ten year period.
“I was familiar with some of the work Nick had published previously but it wasn’t until we got there and I had the first-hand experience of how and where the images were being created that I began to understand and materialise what the book could become,” Lamotte comments. “It’s not often you’re given the chance to experience the subject matter for a book you’re designing first hand and I think that experience of going there together ultimately helped me to be more informed and sensitive to design decisions.” Khichdi (Kitchari) is not only a book about India but one that feels like India. Taking inspiration from everything the pair ate, felt and smelled, it embodies India’s ubiquitous decoration in a celebratory and visceral fashion.
Through a series of, at times, overwhelming spreads, the publication explores photography’s ability to converse, as well as express one’s own relationships and identity. “India is so hard to define and can represent vastly different things to different people depending on their background and interests,” Sethi considers, “so I decided to focus on my personal relationship with the country. It’s very much the point of view of an American with Indian blood.”
Khichdi (Kitchari) expresses this sentiment of fluctuation in every facet. The book takes its name from Khichdi, a traditional dish made from boiled rice and lentils with various spices, vegetables and sometimes meat. Eaten throughout the entire country, Khichdi is India’s national dish, taking on an infinite number of forms and preparations depending on which region, state or even household you eat it in. With no spelling or recipe deemed the official one, Khichdi expresses both India’s changing identity and Sethi’s changing relationship with it.
An important factor in the book’s communication is its design and production. “During my first trip, we knew we wanted to produce and print the book in India,” Lamotte recalls. “Materials and textures are such important themes within the book, we felt it was important to bring those elements into the physicality of the book in an authentic way.” With an aptly busy cover image, exposed spine and solid red fore-edge printing, Khichdi (Kitchari) is produced using (almost all) locally sourced or recycled materials. While creating an authentic outcome, this also allows the book to become a product of the very country and craftsmen it celebrates. “One unforeseen outcome of this was having a pressman who understood the nuances of Indian skin tones, hair colour and particular religious colours and how to best achieve them on the press,” Lamotte explains, “printing in Europe or other parts of Asia wouldn’t have allowed for this.”
Inside its cover, Khichdi (Kitchari) is arranged in a considered manner, despite its haphazard appearance. With spreads full of images that epitomise the serendipity of Sethi’s experiences, the book also features more traditional spreads which provide a visual and conceptual rhythm to the project but that also function on another level. “The book takes the prospect of an insider (who in actuality is an outsider) and we wanted to avoid any voyeuristic style images which we had seen India represented as previously,” says Lamotte. “However, some of the subject matter, particularly the images of the sadhus (older holy men) Sethi had taken at a festival were too good to pass up. We developed the idea to present these images turned sideways in the book (similar to a centrefold) so the viewer is forced to turn the book in order to see them.” Although subtle, this decision reflects the discourse of traditional Indian culture and Western influences, how they are viewed and presented.
Khichdi (Kitchari) is also available as an “expanded” or “tangible” version titled The (Very) Special Edition, which is launching today. Coming in a handmade box made from recycled material sourced in India, the special edition also include stickers, branded bootleg T-shirts, hand-painted statues of gods, hand assembled vinyl truck decals, a fake Apple Watch, gold-foiled religious illustrations, silkscreened tattoo flash on recycled board, and six additional zines. “As I travelled [to India] more and more, I would find things that couldn’t quite be expressed with just a photo,” Sethi remarks. “Initially I shared them with Brian just as inspiration for the book, but as we kept discussing, we decided to recreate and expand on this collection.” The result is an extension of the project which is much more sensory than just a book. It moves beyond a singular object, becoming a “cabinet of curiosities” which provides insight into the duo’s experience.
Whether in his depiction of Bobicol, the street child he met in 2011 or by allowing those he meets to take hold of his camera and shoot for themselves, Sethi’s project is a wholeheartedly honest and fond documentation of a country. Although subjective, he has captured the insurmountable changes which have taken place over the past ten years, from witnessing the opening of the first Starbucks to the influx of social media. As a result, Khichdi (Kitchari) is not a portrait of India or of Sethi but of everyone and everything that happened between the two. “I think the full scope of my work in India will take a lifetime,” he concludes, “but the book firmly defines the first chapter.”