Stripped of Their Careers by Their Move to Ireland, A Group of Women Seek New Purpose in Art

As a dentistry student in Mumbai, Rukmini Kelkar used to make tiny sculptures from dental wax and plaster in the school’s laboratory.

“Arts and crafts always played a role in my life,” she said, last Friday on a Zoom call. But being a dentist shaped her identity.

She finished school and practiced dentistry for five years. “I had my own clients and patients of my own practice,” she says.

A year after Kelkar got married, she moved to Ireland because her husband found a job in Dublin. Moving came to mean letting go of her identity as a dentist. To reinvent herself, she turned to art.

She is now one of Dublin Desi Artists Collective, a group of Dublin artists with Indian roots, established in 2020. Vidya Vivek, an artist from Bangalore, founded it.

Vivek says that women who have lost their hard-earned identities to institutional barriers and are seeking new ones through art make up a large part of their group.

“They can’t take up a job yet because of their visa status, and this is one thing they can do and explore,” she says.

Last year, Kelkar joined to do and explore.

Letting Go

For a while, Kelkar couldn’t work on the immigration stamp she was on.

A lawchanged in 2019, and spouses of critical-skill workers, like her husband, got permission to work.

But with her Indian qualifications, Kelkar couldn’t practice dentistry in Ireland.

She would have had to sit anexam to prove that she knew her stuff. But she’d heard it was tough, she says, and that you could only sit it once a year.

People she knew with more experience had failed, says Kelkar. So, daunted, she didn’t try.

She became a dental nurse instead but, unable to stomach the reminder of who she used to be, and the unwanted trading of places, Kelkar quit after a week, she says.

“You’re literally just handing the dentist the stuff when you actually know how to work as a dentist; it wasn’t easy for me,” she says.

Shortly after, Kelkar decided that it was time to let go of her old dentist self. She grieved the identity loss, and it wasn’t easy, she says.

“It wasn’t an easy decision because, like all of life, you identify as a dentist. And then the question is, who am I if I’m not a dentist?” says Kelkar.

She finally rediscovered herself as an artist, she says – an odyssey depicted in one of her paintings, where a woman is embracing and shielding her identity.

Drawing Women

On Saturday afternoon, Vivek was teaching four kids to paint a brown and yellowy forest in acrylics on Zoom.

Her students were all girls with Indian roots, who had tuned in from Dublin, Boston and Bangalore.

On the screen, Vivek’s brush strokes made gentle swishing sounds on a canvas, like someone ambling ahead on freshly fallen autumn leaves.

“Ma’am, can I use a more detailed brush? I think this is very thick,” said one girl with long black hair, who painted sitting on the floor.

Vivek waited patiently for her students to catch up. “Whatever you’re more comfortable with, you can use,” she said.

While the subject of choice that day was the forest, Vivek also draws people and prefers to draw women, she says.

That’s for two reasons, she says,

“However developed we are, we are still ages behind when it comes to equality in everything, that was one thing,” says Vivek, a civil engineer turned artist.

“And another thing, there are so many similarities between women and nature,” she says.

“Because they’re beautiful and emotional and there’s nobody who can give as much love as a woman, as a mother, as a sister,” she says.

Most artists in the Dublin Desi Artists Collective are women, but that’s a coincidence, Vivek says.

“Because I had written in ladies’ groups looking for Indian artists in Dublin,” she says, smiling broadly.

Rang to Dublin’s Colour

Vivek, whose family was also transplanted to Dublin in 2018 because of her husband’s job, never let emigration halt her art.

She ran exhibitions of her work in city halls in Dublin and Cork from 2019, teaming up with the Indian Embassy in Dublin.

Last year Vivek saw, on social media, that the Embassy of Pakistan was running an exhibition to display the work of Pakistani artists. She suggested to the Indian ambassador that they could do something similar.

“He said, ‘But are there many artists, do you know them? Because he’s also new here,” says Vivek. “I said, let me do my research, I’ll get back to you.”

Vivek took to social media groups to search for artists with Indian roots in Dublin, and she found them.

Ankita Khimesra was among those to join her.

Khimesra used to be a certified chartered accountant, but abandoned it when she moved to Dublin about four years ago.

“I just had a kid, and it was not possible, and then I started my art journey,” says Khimesra.

“I’m happy with it. I don’t want to go back to accounting,” she says.

Khimesra, whose artwork is inspired by ancient Indian art forms like the dot mandala, shares her work on herYouTube channel with more than 24,000 subscribers.

Dot mandala, she says, is a continuous formation of dots in various sizes that form a myriad of patterns.

“Mandala represents universe in Sanskrit which is never ending,” says Khimesra.

On AnkiNish Creations, her YouTube channel, she streams an assortment of tutorials for painting, and how to make dot-mandala-themed earrings, coasters, mirrors and shoes or DIY picture frames.

Malvika Sinha, another member of the Dublin Desi Artists Collective, also found Vivek on a social media group.

“On one of the ladies’ groups, I met Vidya and went to one of her acrylic sessions,” says Sinha, a pharmaceutical professional who also moved here because of her husband’s job and turned to arts and crafts on maternity leave.

Painting by Rumkini Kelkar.

Kelkar, the former dentist, says responding to Vivek’s posts about forming a directory of Indian artists in Dublin on social media groups was also how she joined in.

She now has a graphic diploma, she says, and her work is inspired by cubism and “a little bit of expressionism and impressionism”. One of her paintings shows a new dawn rising from behind the twin Poolbeg chimneys.

In April 2021, Vivek, Khimesra and Sinha curated an online exhibition called RANG, or “colour” in Hindi, which showcased the work of talented Dubliners from India.

The Dublin Desi Artists Collective plans to collaborate with Irish artists and run an exhibition in August that will be, as Vivek says, an ode to Ireland’s stunning landscapes.

“I think it’d be a good topic to work on and unite people with,” she says.

The exhibition’s name will be the word “together” in Sanskrit and Irish, says Vivek. They’re hoping it will be in-person, she says.

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Shamim Malekmian: Shamim Malekmian covers the immigration beat for Dublin Inquirer. Reach her at [email protected]

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