Sunday, June 08, 2008

Putting the flutter in a frame

R Krishna
Sunday, June 08, 2008 03:34 IST

It was his second life, actually. First, it was a caterpillar and then it entered the pupa stage. When it came out, the caterpillar had transformed into a beautiful winged creature. The crumpled wings slowly expanded and as soon as they dried, the butterfly took off. It was truly magical.”

This information is available in any biology textbook that describes the lifecycle of a butterfly. Hearing it from Isaac Kehimkar, however, was an altogether different experience. The incident had taken place almost 25 years ago on Kehimkar’s lemon tree, and triggered his love and fascination for butterflies.

Last week, Kehimkar launched his book, Book of Indian Butterflies, that carries details of almost 735 species of butterflies. It took him almost 12 years to complete the book, and involved scaling more than 10,000 feet to track and photograph the butterflies.

“There are 47 species of butterflies in England. Yet, they have the maximum number of books on those 47 species. You can imagine their happiness when they landed up in India and saw 1,500 species of butterflies — they started naming them left right and centre, giving them the names such as Admiral, Commodore, and Commander,” says Kehimkar.

Kehimkar grew up in Deonar village near Chembur, where nature was a constant companion. Kehimkar grew up exploring fishes and crabs with local boys in the area. Cats and dogs, of course, were never far away. The love for nature got a new dimension when his father gifted him a box camera. From that point on Kehimkar started photographing his pets.

Kehimkar joined the Bombay Natural History Society (BNHS) to work as a volunteer. “By then I knew that nature had so much to offer. At BNHS, I gained knowledge about the things I loved.”

While finding butterflies is easy, according to Kehimkar, it gets really difficult when you are chasing a particular specie — especially the ones that are rare and present at high altitudes. The going got tough while chasing the Apollo, a rare species, in the Himalayas. “When I did find one, and took my camera out, it just flew off to an inaccessible location. It was frustrating,” says Kehimkar.

The joy of photographing butterflies lies in its frustration: “Eagle Nest, which is near the border of Bhutan, has an amazing variety of butterflies. We were relaxing by the bank of a river, having our lunch, when I saw an
Orange Oak Leaf fly across the river and sit on the other bank. I wondered if it was worth the effort of crossing the river. I somehow managed to cross the river using a bridge that was some distance away. To my surprise, when I reached the spot the fellow was still sitting at the same spot. I took out my camera and clicked his photograph.”

“A lot of people find it difficult to photograph butterflies because they find it tough to sit still,” said Kehimkar. Tracking butterflies is at the end of the day a tough job. The good news is that if you love butterflies, you couldn’t have been in a better country.

“I got a Fulbright scholarship and was in California for nine weeks. I was trying to find butterflies there, and it was really tough. If I was in India for 9 weeks, I would have found a bag full of butterflies. India is so rich biologically with the kind of forests we have, the kind of mangroves we have. But we are not doing much about it,” said Kehimkar. “In the North-East, thousands of butterflies will be sitting, and they explode like clouds while taking off.”

Mumbai alone is home to about 140 species of butterflies, all of which can be found in Sanjay Gandhi National Park. Pune and Bangalore, too, have more than 100 species.


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