Last year, we published a popular post on the career of one of our favorite yesterday playback singers, Minoo Purushottam. In one of those great twists of fate taken straight from a 60s masala flick, shortly afterwards, we received an email from Minoo-ji’s son who re-connected Mrs. 55 with her Hindi classical voice teacher, Minoo-ji herself, from years before! Minoo-ji was gracious enough to grant Mr. and Mrs. 55 – Classic Bollywood Revisited! an exclusive interview about her career. After spending many years in Houston since leaving Bombay, Minoo-ji has now settled into her new home in Illinois near her son where she continues to teach new students and perform at concerts. We are honored to share with you a transcript of our delightful conversation with her that includes reminiscing about her early schooldays when she was first recognized as a musical prodigy, that time Mukesh blew his 16th take during a recording session, and what advice she has for aspiring singers!
MRS. 55: Could you tell us a little bit more about your early music training?
MINOO: I grew up in Bombay. There were music classes in school. A South Indian teacher used to come and teach us the ragas. At that time, I was chosen to lead the school prayers. That was a great time for me, I was not thinking then that I would become a singer when I was at school. I wanted to become a schoolteacher actually. I had very simple ambitions. When suddenly I realized I was a singer, I started seriously practicing, four hours every day, every day, every day. This was because I had to prepare for my exams: 25 ragas for the sangeet visharad in the first year. It was very difficult. But I always loved to teach, and I still love it. Everybody now thinks they can sing without practice. I think karaoke messed things up that way. If you know the Bhagavad Gita, Krishna said we have 4 Vedas, and there is a Samaveda based on music. The whole universe is singing if you carefully listen to it. All the sounds are like singing. It affects one a lot.
MR. 55: Who was your favorite duet partner in the past?
MINOO: All these singers are great humans. I was working all my life with Mohammed Rafi. At that time I was very young and toured with Asha Bhonsle too. But after the great singers were gone, I was not interested in staying in Bombay. With whom should I sing? I was feeling sad. But still I love to work, I love to sing. Even now I practice every day.
MRS. 55: Some singers have commented on the difficult of breaking into the industry when it was dominated by a few select singers. How did you overcome that?
MINOO: I didn’t have any difficulty. It seemed that everybody loved me so much, they wanted to give me a chance. I was doing my job well. All the music directors were very happy with me when I was working with them. I never said that, “I want this, I want that.” I never made demands, so I was very easy to work with. At that time music was so great. The stories in the films were so good. You can see those films 100 times. From my childhood, I saw the film Mahal. It’s a very old movie. I can see that film over and over. I love all those songs. I can see it 1000 times. But my time was after that, mostly colour movies.
MR. 55: You worked with many great music directors. What lessons did they teach you?
MINOO: I was working a lot with Madan Mohan. He was my teacher, teaching me ghazals and pronunciation and accent of ghazals. Jaidev was also my teacher.
MRS. 55: I remember when I took lessons from you, you talked fondly about the actors you worked with, especially Sanjeev Kumar.
MINOO: You know, Sanjeev Kumar’s sister is in Houston and used to come to meet me. We were very good friends. But things change a lot. Madhumati was very good friend of mine as well.
MR. 55: Are there any new artists that you enjoy?
MINOO: I have a habit of listening to old songs from singers like Talat Mehmood. It’s hard to change that. But some students do want to learn new songs, and then I help them. We should be open-minded, it’s a part of the job.
MRS. 55: What is your favorite film song that you sang?
MINOO: I love all of them. You put so much time and effort into each one. You have to concentrate very hard, you can’t play around with it. One should be very serious. Nowadays they can break the song down in pieces to record just the pieces, and then put them together. But in those days, you and all the musicians had to sing it perfectly all the way through. If you make a mistake, you’d be rejected. One day I was sitting for the recording and Mukesh-ji was making so many mistakes! He was on his 16th take and he said, “If I don’t get it right this time, I’m going to forget this song.” I think my voice has changed with age, and it suits bhajans and ghazals now. And anyway, who would compose film music now the way S.D. Burman and C. Ramchandra did? This time people just want to make money, not make real music.
MRS. 55: Is there anything you’d like to tell your fans?
MINOO: If you really want to sing, you must learn something. Find a teacher. But I can tell you, it’s hard to find time to devote just to music. But you must do it.
– Mr. and Mrs. 55