The Butterflies of India: An interview with Isaac Kehimkar

Isaac Kehimkar is an avid naturalist and the author of The Book of Indian Butterflies
Isaac's photostream of Indian Butterflies is at Flickr.

Avi Solomon: What early influences drew you to the study of nature?

Isaac Kehimkar: I grew up in Deonar, a suburb of Mumbai. It was a time when black and white television had just started in India with only one channel and no video games in sight. But Nature offered so many options. Deonar was still green and water in the streams was sparkling clean. The Monsoons were my season and catching fish and crabs with local Koli and Agri boys in the rice fields was my favorite pastime. That's the time I even dared (rather foolishly) to catch snakes too! With the rains gone and rice harvested, cricket pitches were soon paved in the rice fields and we played cricket till the rains came again.

The house we lived had good lot of trees and my interest in gardening grew so much that I started a plant nursery. My parents encouraged me to keep pets and allowed me to do what made me happy. I had dogs, cats, rabbits, hens, ducks and fishes. Pets taught me to take responsibilities and learn to accept loss in life.

Avi: How did you become a Naturalist?

Isaac: Weak in maths, I could not go for science, so I graduated in Political Science and Psychology from Mumbai University. However, my affinity towards nature remained strong as ever. Soon after graduating I did a brief stint in selling cosmetics with Lakme.

My father advised me that it's more difficult to get a job that will give satisfaction and happiness than those which give higher salaries – money would come eventually, but it's difficult to be happy. I had the opportunity to join the Bombay Natural History Society as a volunteer in 1978 and chose a low-paying job there as Library Assistant. My mother had warned me that no girl would marry me with this meager salary, but I knew that BNHS was the place for me. Here I grew up while lapping up as much as I could from the library and learning from people like Dr. Salim Ali and Vyankatesh Madgulkar who often visited the BNHS library. "Sanctuary" magazine offered me good opportunities to hone my writing skills and I could publish several of my natural history photos and articles. I did a story on the butterfly lifecycle and I found it so fascinating that then onwards butterflies took over my life.

My books on Indian Wildflowers and Indian Butterflies were then published by the BNHS and Oxford University Press. The book on butterflies turned out to be the bestseller among BNHS publications. I now am the General Manager of Programs for the BNHS. I did marry and my family is very supportive of my endeavors!

Avi: Do any particular flowers and butterflies have special significance for you?

Isaac: Among flowers, it's the Brahma Kamal (Saussurea obvallata), that blooms in the Himalayas at 15000 ft. This flower represents the serene beauty of the Himalayas – placid and unruffled. I always tell people to visit the Himalayas atleast once in their lifetime—it's a great humbling experience in these mighty mountains.

A Himalayan butterfly is also my favorite. It is the regal Red Apollo (Parnassius epaphus) that flies above 10,000 ft in the drier cold desert regions of the Himalayas like Ladakh.

Avi: What are the challenges of studying butterflies in India?

Isaac: I have realized that India is truly an unique and diverse country with a amazing array of landscapes, people, animals, birds, insects and flowers. To really "see" India one lifetime is not enough. I have seen most of India while chasing butterflies. Tracking butterflies in Ladakh at 16000 ft was quite a breathless exercise and the enormity of the landscape is quite intimidating. So are the dense forests of Assam and Arunachal Pradesh in the northeast. The passion for these winged jewels overcomes all hurdles like blood-thirsty leeches, invisible nasty mites and angry elephants. More than these, I fear the man-made hurdles like political unrest or getting kidnapped in the northeast.

Now I am busy doing a new book on butterflies to cover 750 species out of the 1500 species of butterflies found in India. I am also keen on reaching out to lay people by popularizing the concept of butterfly gardens. I aim to use butterflies as a vehicle to achieve conservation goals by promoting butterfly farming for forests dwelling communities as an alternative and sustainable livelihood. India is one of the hot spots for butterflies in the world. England just has 47 species of butterflies and we have a rich heritage of 1500 species!

Avi: Butterflies are associated with reincarnation in Greek mythology. Did you find similar myths in India?

Isaac: Yes, in Hindu mythology there is a similar story: One day Brahma created the world—trees, waters, animals, fish, birds, plants and flowers. He loved them all, but most of all he loved the plants and the flowers that grew in it. Until, one day, to his horror he found all the plants stripped of their leaves. Brahma was very angry, and wanted to find the culprit. Finally a caterpillar confessed that he was so hungry that he could not resist the tender leaves.

Angry Brahma cursed the caterpillar saying "You shall become like a stone, with no legs to walk, no wings to fly and no jaws to eat. You will just hang there surrounded by the plants you like so much, but you will not be able to eat my plants again!" And the caterpillar hung there like a lifeless lump, with no legs and jaws for days. Unable to bear the caterpillar's fate, fellow creatures like the birds and animals requested Brahma to forgive the caterpillar. Brahma finally agreed and modified his curse to last only for a few days. The caterpillar touched Brahma's feet in gratitude.

Pleased with the caterpillar, Brahma granted him a boon that henceforth every caterpillar would go to sleep for a few days and wake up as a beautiful butterfly.