The death’s-head hawkmoth, associated with witchcraft in several cultures because of the skull pattern on its thorax, gained further infamy when it was plastered on Jodie Foster’s face in the poster for Silence of the Lambs. But it seems a bit less sinister when one learns that the butterfly emits a loud squeak when irritated.

“The Acherontia Atropos is perfectly harmless,” said 13-year-old Ramprasad Mahurkar, who knows the hawkmoth (and hundreds of other kinds of butterflies) by their scientific names, no matter how hard to spell or pronounce those names seem to be.

The teenager’s obsession with butterflies began in 2015, after a trip to the butterfly park of Navi Mumbai’s Agro Society. A chance meeting with Makarand Kulkarni, an expert on butterflies, reminded Mahurkar of the many butterfly stamps in the stamp collection his parents had given him almost five years ago. That day, when he returned to his home in Kharghar, Mahurkar hunted for the stamps and really began to notice butterflies for the first time.

Ramprasad Mahurkar at a butterfly park. (Image courtesy: Pooja Mahurkar).

This collection of lepi phila (or stamps with images of butterflies on them) has grown considerably in the last two years – Mahurkar has added several stamps of his own, but refuses to say exactly how many. “You never count the stamps in a collection,” he said in a grave voice. “It’s bad luck.”

The entire collection, along with Mahurkar’s writings on the stamps, were exhibited at the Bombay Natural History Society in July 2016.

Image courtesy: personal collection of Ramprasad Mahurkar.

Mahurkar is unlike the average teenager: he has an extraordinary memory and attention span, he reads books that one could argue are well beyond his age, prefers to update his Google Plus profile with his own writing (literary and film reviews, trivia, articles he has authored for children’s magazines) instead of mundane Facebook updates, and spends most of his evenings at the butterfly park near his house. He also has muscular dystrophy.

Image courtesy: personal collection of Ramprasad Mahurkar.

Diagnosed at age five, Mahurkar’s condition progressively weakens his muscles and is caused by a genetic mutation that interferes with the production of muscle proteins necessary to build and maintain healthy muscles. One of the symptoms of muscular dystrophy is that it limits movement.

“When we visited the Agro Society, the butterfly park was the only one that was accessible by wheelchair so that was the only one we ended up taking him to,” said Pooja, Mahurkar’s mother. “We had a great time at the park that day. Wheeling him around, seeing this new interest taking over him, his fascination with the small facts that we kept learning through the visit.”

Image courtesy: personal collection of Ramprasad Mahurkar.

Mahurkar is equipped with a wheelchair to get around his school, apartment building and the butterfly park. On the fifth floor, where Mahurkar lives, chances of spotting a butterfly are slim. He is still trying to attract some, and has planted Hibiscus and other species of flowering plants.

While Mahurkar is waiting for the butterflies to visit his balcony, he contends himself by visiting the Agro Society Butterfly Park almost every day.

“I love butterflies because they are beautiful and inspiring,” said Mahurkar. “A large proportion of the whole earth’s food crops are pollinated by butterflies, plus they have been studied to understand the phenomena of evolution and the role of genetics.” He wants to be a genetic engineer when he grows up.

Poppies and Butterflies by Vincent Van Gogh. Van Gogh's series on butterflies were used on Bhutan's postage stamps. (Image courtesy: Wikimedia Commons).

His neatly organised collection includes stamps, postcards with butterfly motifs, labels of silk cloth companies and even a ticket from the first flight of Air India between India and Japan. In the illustration, the moustachioed and turbaned mascot of Air India can be seen holding hands with a geisha, both drawn as half butterflies. These showcase the many ways in which butterflies and related symbology finds a place in cultures all over the world. They are mostly seen as a symbol of joy, hope and life.

The Air India ticket from the first flight between Bombay and Osaka (Image courtesy: personal collection of Ramprasad Mahurkar).

India issued its first set of butterfly stamps in 1981, while Bhutan issued two sets in 1968, depicting butterflies like Euploea Mulciber, Morpho Rhetenor, Papilio Androgenus and Troides Magelanus. These are names that Mahurkar can and does rattle off with ease (he is prone to launch into butterfly trivia at any given moment).

Image courtesy: personal collection of Ramprasad Mahurkar.

Mahurkar is the youngest addition to a long line of scientists, artists and writers obsessed with butterflies. In Edgar Allan Poe’s short story, The Sphinx, a man is convinced that a horrifying creature is trying to kill him only to be told that it is the death’s-head hawkmoth that he has been seeing. In Charles Darwin’s book The Voyage of the Beagle, written in form of a journal on an expedition aboard the HMS Beagle that sailed to the Galapagos Islands in the 1830s, butterflies make an unexpected appearance:

“One evening, when we were about ten miles from the Bay of San Blas, vast numbers of butterflies, in bands or flocks of countless myriads, extended as far as the eye could range. Even by the aid of a telescope it was not possible to see a space free from butterflies. The seamen cried out ‘it was snowing butterflies.’” 

Of the many books written on butterflies, like Gay Thomas’ Common Butterflies of India and The Book of Indian Butterflies by Isaac David Kehimkar (also known as the butterfly man of India), one of Mahurkar’s favourites is Butterflies On The Roof Of The World by Peter Smetacek, of the Butterfly Research Centre in Bhimtal.

The two have been friends since even before Mahurkar read Smetacek’s book. “Ram reached out to Peter on Facebook while he was looking for butterfly experts and Peter has been very responsive,” said Pooja. The two have had many engaging conversations about butterflies since. “It is rare that one finds interesting, yet overlooked or obscure information on this subject,” said Smetacek. Referring to the teenager’s extensive lepi phila collection, he said, “The exhibit is especially interesting in that all the information presented has been painstakingly researched and is impeccable. For a 13-year-old to do this, even with help from his mother, is certainly an achievement.”