Words from the Wise: Bhupendra (Burt) Thakar, a civil engineer, is also an expert on tabla
J: So you did drumming last Thursday at the Senior Center’s “Music with Lynn”?
B: Yes, Tabla. I played since I was 20. Right now, I’m 70 years old, but with arthritis. It has reduced the amount of time I play. It’s less. I come from Springfield, Illinois.
J: Do you still live there? Are you visiting here?
J: What are you visiting for?
B: My daughter lives here, and because I’m retired I come every so often here.
J: And you’re an engineer. Before Illinois, where were you?
B: Before I got this job at the Illinois Department of Transportation, I went to University of Iowa in Iowa City for my master’s degree in civil engineering... I graduated in 1967. In ’68 there was a gentleman who came to do the same thing — MS in civil engineering — he told me,“If you want to come work, I can talk to my boss and you can get a job.” So from the telephone I got a job from Iowa to the Illinois DOT, Bureau of Bridges and Structures.
J: So where did you grow up?
B: I was born in Karanchi which is now Pakistan. But I grew up in the state of Gujarat in India... That is the same state where Mahatma Gandhi was born.
J: And what was it like growing up there? What did you do for fun?
B: I played football, which you all call soccer (laughs). I was the captain of the football team. I played table tennis — indoor — and badminton — early morning. These are the things that I did from ’58 to ’64. During (high school and) college years.
J: So if you went to Iowa for your master’s degree, did you get your bachelor’s in India?
B: Yes, it was called Birla Vishwakarma Mahavidhyalaya, BVM, Birla College... My brother was in California, and he went to University of Iowa, and he wrote to me, “If you want to come here, I will give you the name of the professor.”
J: So now you also play this drum, you said you’ve played it since you were 20, is it a traditional Indian instrument?
B: We had a regular class in high school for music, and then the teacher said, “If you are interested in music: violin, sitar, tabla, you can take a class in the evening for a very small fee.” So I said, “OK.” So I started doing that in eighth, ninth, 10th, 11th grade — four grades — but this was only in the evening after school. And we used to sit down and start playing tabla, and the first chance I got to play with a bigger artist was when a singer came to town.
B: And the teacher said, “You are coming after 6 o’clock.” I said, “What is it for?” And he said, “We are having a well-known singer, and you are going to accompany the singer,” and so my teacher was sitting by, and I was sitting next to him, and I had the Indian dress with the long things.
J: So they chose you to do it, you must be great at it.
B: Oh yeah. I enjoyed it very much, and right now I live in Springfield, Ill. We have a group of people there who do programs yearly on the stage, and different singers and instruments. “Land of Lincoln.” Springfield, Ill., is about 200 miles southwest of Chicago... So it’s funny, I’ll tell you when we were sitting on the stage: I am there, and other people provide their program, get up and go, and I’m still there. Somebody else will come. I’m still there.
J: That’s great. So you must love it.
J: What does it feel like when you’re playing the drum?
B: It is very enjoyable, and when people do like this (claps) after each program, I feel so great. This thing is outside of my regular job, and it gives me more pleasure and is more enjoyable. So that’s what I did. And when I came here, to Univ. of Iowa, we had programs there as well. They found out I play tabla; they told me to come, but I said, “I don’t have tabla,” because my father said, “You are going for study, I don’t want you to play tabla.” But there was another gentleman who didn’t know tabla, but had one, and so I took that one and used it.
J: And so your daughter lives here. When you come here do you stay for a while?
B: Just eight or nine days.
J: Is it once a year?
B: No, more than once a year. Twice or maybe thrice. After my wife passed away a few years ago, I was still doing a part-time job, at a friend’s civil engineering company. He said, “Do you want to work?” I said, “I don’t want to work regularly after so many years with DOT.” So I was driving 30 miles, three days (a week) to go there and help them with the private industry. The private industry did not know as much as I knew about civil engineering.
J: Are you going to be here for the next music (event)?
B: I don’t know, probably not. I will be leaving in three or four days.
J: But you will be back?
B: I will be back.
J: Well, thank you so much!
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