Traditional dress, India. Image by Narine Exelby.

Most Indian women wear traditional dress and the rule of thumb seems to be the brighter and more elaborate, the better.

There are so many fragments and intricacies in India that it’s almost impossible to unravel its real identity. Photographer Narina Exelby shares passing moments in the country in snapshots featuring the colours and moods that make the country so extraordinary.

It would be a really big task to define India with one image: to fill a frame with the extremes that make this country such an enchanting place. From the mighty Himalayas along its northern border to the fertile Ganges River floodplain, the vast dry lands that stretch across Rajasthan, the tropical forests that cling to Goa’s coastline and the insanity of cities like Delhi (with a population of 16 million), the country’s landscapes and human canvasses are ever-changing.

The contrasts are mind-boggling: consider the absolute frenzy of a city like Kolkata, which is a riot of crowded roads and crumbling buildings, but commands a grand sense of power. Then consider the delicate peace that fills a morning to which you awaken on Kerala’s backwaters, the humbling sense of insignificance you experience standing in the presence of great mountains and the barriers that fall when a stranger invites you to tea.

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The big picture can be daunting. At almost 3,3 million  km2, India is as vast (SA, Lesotho, Namibia, Zimbabwe and Mozambique could all fit inside its borders, with room to spare) as it is diverse. So, on my five-week journey through the country, I chose to piece together my understanding of this place by documenting the small things.

Using my iPhone 6S meant I could be unobtrusive and shoot with a freedom I rarely feel when carrying my SLR and lenses. I wandered through the backlanes– always much more interesting than slick city centres – and drank chai on the streets in the early mornings. I said “yes” whenever I was invited into homes and had my hands painted with henna by a bride-to-be. Every day I tried to find somewhere to sit, be inconspicuous and simply watch time unfold.

St Francis Church in Kochi, Kerala. Image by Narina Exelby.

Sunday morning outside St Francis Church in Kochi, Kerala. This is one of the oldest European churches in Kerala, dating back to the 16th century.

A riot of colours. Narina Exelby

When timing is (almost) perfect: a woman in red walks out of a green door set against blue and yellow walls. Everywhere you go in India, there’s a riot of colours.


Narina Exelby is a South African freelance writer and photographer who swapped stability in Cape Town for a life less ordinary. With one travel book, two passports and 13 years’ magazine deadlines behind her, she left her job as Senior Features Editor at Women’s Health in 2012 to embark on a new creative journey.

Shiva temple in Kalna. Image Narina Exelby.

The fascinating Shiva temple in Kalna comprises 108 shrines in two circles: 34 on the inner one and 74 on the outer one.

This feature appears in the May 2016 issue of Sawubona magazine. Take it off the plane if you are flying this month or download it here, for free.

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