Khichdi (Kitchari) by Nick Sethi, reviewed by Robert Dunn

In my last review for Photobookstore Magazine, I wrote of Morten Andersen’s roughly 8 x 12–inch, 300-plus-page, full-bleed-color photobook on his travels to the so-called Third World. Here I’m writing about Nick Sethi’s roughly 8 x 12–inch, 400-plus-page, full-bleed-color photo book simply of India. Andersen spends a week in Kolkata for Fast Cities. Sethi, an Indian living in New York, spent a decade working on Khichdi (Kitchari), his bright and shiny opus of all things Subcontinent.

I was in India once, way back in 1978, and in the parlance of the day, it totally blew my mind. I liked to avoid actual hotels so found lodging in a grim, cheap concrete hostel on the Main Bazaar Road, not far from the central train station. I checked in, then hit the street. Here’s how I explained to people back then the sheer overwhelmingness I found: Imagine women in flowing saris, one more brilliantly colored than the next; men wrapped in what looked like white sheets; urchins darting and dashing along; slow-ambling cows; legless men pushing themselves on platforms on wheels; elephants; beggars chanting for relief, one hand out, another holding a baby they’d press into your face; souls with skin diseases erupting over all their bodies, and on and on … and imagine this all passing by you in less than one minute.

As in, I was overwhelmed. Forty years on, I’m sure India has changed vastly (back then, for example, you couldn’t buy Coca-Cola, only locally produced soft drinks; Indira Gandhi’s own keep-things-local, Make India Great Again program), but from the evidence of Khichdi (Kitchari), Sethi’s lovingly produced photobook from Dashwood Press, the nation is as overwhelming as ever, as is his eye-popping photobook.

Here’s a street-side minute of Khichdi (Kitchari), photos flipped to at random.

A Hindu holy man, scraggly black hair and beard, white powder drenching his fully naked body; a woman shopping, her own brilliant red blouse, green skirt, and purple scarf offset by muted yellow, blue, and pink plastic bags; a plaid-shirted smoking young man hanging on the window of his friend’s white Mercedes; a tatted up muscly dude, his Indian guru painted on a red sheet hanging next to him, gold emanations radiating off the guru’s head; a mysterious catlike animal (head cropped off) doing a wild dance; a visual cacophony of stringed lights; more muscley guys carrying a Ganesha elephant god float; a teenage couple making out on a burlap blanket on rocky ground; three shots of another white-powdered man, a bamboo shoot skewering his testicles; a sky-tall float of a Hindu god made up of flowers, eight half-naked men woven into it; pages of smiling men in tee shirts proclaiming phrases such as “Every Man Dies Not Every Man Really Lives” and “Help You I Well”; more pages of smiling kids cutting up for the camera, and … and … and….

That is, I’m barely scratching the surface of Khichdi (Kitchari)—pots and pots of colors and images and smiling folk are cooking away in Sethi’s kitchen. (The word Khichdi means a mung beans and rice porridge used as an Ayurvedic purification cleanse.) I’m not sure the book Khichdi (Kitchari) will cleanse you; certainly it will fill you up, if not quite blow out your senses.

That’s the thing with the book: There’s a lot going on, but it becomes repetitive. There really are an awful lot of smiling kids! There are stunning photos, pages and pages of simply strong ones, and yet they’re vitiated by piling on more and more banal ones or everyday ones or even more kids-grinning-for-the-camera ones.

Which raises a very 2018 question. If Khichdi (Kitchari) is a book that feels like a boundless Instagram feed, and the aesthetics of Instagram are now going to inform serious photobooks, will there still be a place for a tightly edited work? A photobook that doesn’t put in just any ol’ shot but the ones that matter. Books that speak subtly from photo to photo instead of just bellow at each other. Books that say more than that there’s a whole lot of stuff going on out there, and look at all the pals I have and what they’re up to. Books that understand that the right photos in the right order, the strongest photos leading to even stronger ones, will have a greater impact than just what one’s iPhone captures, and what the bottomless maw of Instagram will devour.

It’s a little like when records segued into CDs, and all of a sudden an album was twice as long because the CD could hold a lot more minutes of music. Quickly turned out that twice as many songs didn’t make for better albums, though, just longer ones. (When was the last time you pushed through all 62-plus minutes of the Stones’ Bridges to Babylon? Out of Our Heads, with “Satisfaction” and “Play with Fire,” is just 33 minutes long.)

So now there are no limits to how many photos you can put out there for those interested in your work, but does that mean you should?

A question worth raising … and one that Sethi’s book engenders. But of course he also has all of India to work with. I’ll put it this way: India is an abundance of colors and imagery, Khichdi (Kitchari) is also an abundance of colors and imagery … but does that make it the best book it can be?

Yes and no. There are certainly a great book’s worth of strong, moving photos—children dancing amid a deluge of white confetti; a discarded elephant god statue, face broken up; a pair of braceleted hands painted with henna circles—and there are pages with multiple photos all collaged to capture a Hindu parade or the breadth of daily life. But there are an awful lot pages that read like Facebook posts, as in, here’s a pal smiling for the camera, here’s somebody showing off their tee shirt, here’s who we were hanging out with last night.

Which makes this a new kind of book … and raises questions of whether it should be a book at all. A photobook fixes a body of work. Simply by a photobook being a physical book it’s implied that what’s in it is a product of a choice of photos, arranging them in a specific way, then turning them into the physical book.

Safe to say that the physical Khichdi (Kitchari) is a beautiful piece of work. Thick as a mid-sized city’s phone book, printed in India, hand-bound in India with signatures held together by red and silver string and a powerful invisible glue, a brilliantly colorful cover with images laid on top of each other suggesting it could use 3D glasses (not supplied) to see it clear … there’s no question that Khichdi (Kitchari) is impressive. The only question is how important it is.

The publisher’s page on the book refers to how Sethi’s “intimate and complex images push the boundaries of where art, photography, and daily life intersect.” Sounds good, eh? But to me that vaunted boundary in Khichdi (Kitchari) is just another way of saying, Hey, I’m an artist, and here’s my daily photo feed. Nothing wrong with that, of course, but the all-inclusiveness of Khichdi (Kitchari) is both the book’s undeniable power and that which diminishes it over the long haul. Could Sethi’s experience of India be more concise? Could we not start turning the pages faster because, oh, look, more pages of kids cutting up for no apparent reason?

That seems to be the issue with Instagram, or any social media service, and serious photography. Are the photos posted ones that have been mulled over and uploaded because there’s richness and meaning in them that will be of deep interest to you and me and anyone? Or are the shots we’re looking at just something that happened the other day, banal as breakfast, silly as friends out drinking, and posted with intentions of self-aggrandizement and that pernicious we’re-having-a-better-life-than-you social media one-upmanship?

And what does all that have to do with photo books?

Times change, media change, the delivery of media changes profoundly. CDs of course have virtually disappeared, replaced by the endless streams of Spotify and the like. And yet records, actual vinyl discs, have for years been coming back strong, because people need fixed and finite works: an album, a record, a book.

The best photobooks hew tight to a clear, intense idea, and they always will. Each page is a revelation, and each journey through the book brings something new.

By the end of Khichdi (Kitchari) you’ve seen it all a dozen times. (All those kids eager to beam at the camera, those pals happy to pose with arms linked!) You’re thinking, O.K., India is a big, wild country, always was, always will be, and there’s sure a lot going on, so maybe there’s no other way to capture it in the twenty-teens than with this near-endless banquet of a book. An argument I could easily make, and leave it at that.

But it’s just that by book’s end I feel as though I’ve been there, sure, and that I’ve seen an awful lot, yet a lot of it seems pretty superficial. In a way I learned more about foreign lands from Morten Andersen’s Fast Cities mentioned above … the book of a seasoned photographer who knows how to get what matters, even if he’s only in a place for a week. (Quick line from my review: “There’s not a weak shot in the book.” Certainly not the case with Khichdi (Kitchari). )

Sethi is not even thirty. I’m sure he’ll keep shooting, wildly, ambitiously, and will no doubt keep on making books. I’m glad I own Khichdi (Kitchari), and I’m still discovering more of its abundant mysteries, in particular a number of all-orange pages with ghost faces on them (oh, wait, two thirds of the way through the book we find the page with five of these “faces” painted on a stone wall—typical of the book, a full flush of photos from just one wall … mystery solved).

Still, if you’re going to throw everything you have into a book, the ultimate Instagram-feed work, where better than India?

I’m definitely looking forward to his ten-years-on opus of India, when what I’m reading isn’t just all the shots that poured out of the kitchen—or streamed across social media—but a book … weighted with greater experience (life highs, life lows), knowledge, understanding, and a further-developed artistic vision.

Indeed, Khichdi (Kitchari) here is impressive enough that for this more developed work I’ll be first in line (unless I’ve seen it all already on my iPhone).
Khichdi (Kitchari) by Nick Sethi can be purchased here.

Robert Dunn is a writer, photographer, and teacher. His latest novel is Savage Joy, inspired by his first years in NYC and working at The New Yorker magazine. His photobooks OWS, Angel Parade, Carnival of Souls, and New York Street are in the permanent collection of the libraries of the Museum of Modern Art and the International Center of Photograph (more info on Dunn’s own photobooks here; prints of his work can be ordered here, follow his instagram here). Dunn also teaches a course called “Writing the Photobook” at the New School University in New York City.