Who Is Minoo Purshottam? Appreciation from a Former Student

Minoo Purushottam, Bollywood playback singer.

Minoo Purshottam, Bollywood playback singer of the 60s and 70s, performing live for the BBC.

Minoo Purshottam was an acclaimed Bollywood playback singer of the 1960s and 70s. She lived in the era dominated by the famous soprano sisters Lata Mangeshkar and Asha Bhonsle, fighting for the ground they couldn’t cover—and scoring! Continuing our slant of broadcasting the unsung heroes of classic Bollywood, I now introduce you to Minoo Purshottam, yesteryear songstress and incidentally, my former vocal instructor.

I spent much of my childhood in Houston where I had the pleasure of learning music from Minoo-ji in the classical Hindustani style. Before becoming her student, I knew her work well from the soundtracks of great Bollywood films I had grown up with. You may not know her name, but you’ve probably heard her songs. From “Ni Main Yaar Manana Ni” with Lata Mangeshkar from Daag (1973), “Na Na Na Re, Haath Na Lagaana” from Taj Mahal (1963) with Suman Kalyanpur, and “Huzur-e-Wala Jo Ho Ijaazat” from Yeh Raat Phir Na Aayegi (1966), Minoo-ji made an important mark among the musical legends in India.

helen na na na haath na taj mahal

Helen dances to Minoo Purshottam’s playful “Na Na Na Haath Na Lagana” in Taj Mahal (1963).

Minoo-ji made her playback debut in Taj Mahal at the age of 16. Legendary music director Roshan took her under his wing, giving her a chance to sing a duet with Suman Kalyanpur. She recalls that she was much shorter than Suman and since in those days singers shared a single microphone during a studio recording (at Mehboob Studios, no less), she had to stand on a platform to make up for the difference!

From the daughter of a farming family in Patiala, she went on to become a singing maestro, working with composers like S.D. Burman, O.P. Nayyar, and Madan Mohan. Although she had a few occasional solos, her most famous work in films is as a partner, not a lead—always a bridesmaid, never a bride. Yet listen to how heroine-esque Minoo-ji’s voice sounds in the playful Jaidev composition “Raat Piya Ke Sang” from the lost film Prem Parbat (1973)! She toured with playback singers like Mohammed Rafi until his passing, yet when it came time to record songs for films, he was matched with Asha Bhonsle or Lata Mangeshkar. Minoo-ji waited for the female-female duets to shine.

Ni Main Yaar Daag Minoo Purushottam

One of classic Bollywood’s favorite female dance duets, “Ni Main Yaar Manana Ni” features the vocals of Minoo Purshottam from the hit film Daag (1973).

Eventually, Minoo Purushottam turned to non-filmi ghazals where she felt the songs could have more “meaning,” something with a more serious philosophy, and eventually left India and settled in Houston where she started teaching Hindustani vocals. Her depth in the heart-stirring ghazal Zakhm Rahguzaaro.N Ke demonstrates another aspect of her talent that may otherwise have remained hidden behind the glitzy duets of old Bollywood.

I remember her classes used to take place at an auntie’s house in the community. We sat next to each other on a keyboard bench and she played the melody as I tried to keep up with what she was singing.  Minoo-ji was a strict teacher, but full of laughter and great stories—a Panjabi like me. I remember she often performed at local functions where she held her audiences captivated.

huzur e wala minoo purushottam helen

Asha Bhonsle and Minoo Purushottam join forces for the cabaret number “Huzoor-e wala” in the mystery film Yeh Raat Phir Na Aayegi (1966).

I often regret that I was too young to fully appreciate the magnitude of the legend from whom I was learning. I sometimes wish I could go back and ask her the questions on her life experiences and the inspirations that made her the fascinating artist she became. Yes, she never reached the heights of the playback singers we all associate with that era—but it is precisely because of it that I respect her more, standing her ground in a world notorious for its ruthlessness. Perhaps it was because of her innocence and much younger age that she never felt any rivalry between herself and these stars. Minoo-ji enjoyed collaboration rather than competition. And in Bollywood, that was a rare and beautiful thing.

What is your favorite Minoo Purshottam song? Let us know in the comments! For more unsung heroes of early Bollywood, check out our previous posts on costume designer Mani Rabadi and music composer Anthony Gonsalves!

Minoo Purshottam playback singer

Minoo Purushottam, Bollywood playback singer of the 60s and 70s.

– Mrs. 55

Jab Dil Hi Toot Gaya Lyrics and Translation: Let’s Learn Urdu-Hindi

KL Saigal in Shahjehan 1946

Pre-independance Indian actor and singer, K.L. Saigal plays a Mughal-era lover in in Shahjehan (1946).

Our next lyrics and English translation is of the ageless song “Jab Dil Hi Toot Gaya” from Shahjehan (1946). Known widely as early playback singer K.L. Saigal’s swansong, “Jab Dil Hi Toot Gaya” is a song close to my heart and family. K.L. Saigal was my great-great uncle through my Kashmiri Nani who grew up in Jammu near Saigal sahib‘s birthplace. It’s a song that defined a generation, and one that sadly, many of my generation have never known. The great K.L. Saigal’s voice was the voice of my grandparents–the voice of men and women who can remember a time before India gained independence, before the partition destroyed Punjab, and before Bollywood was redefined as a spectacle of the mass ornament. He was a superstar before there was Mohammed Rafi and before the rise of Lata Mangeshkar. For he lived and died in an era that did not know the glitter of Eastmancolor or the dazzle of expensive special effects. K.L. Saigal was an artist when poetry reigned supreme.

KL Saigal Devdas 1935

K.L. Saigal and co-star Jamuna by the riverbanks in the 1935 Hindi epic Devdas.

Like Al Jolson in America, K.L. Saigal revolutionized music in the 1930s and 1940s in the early days of “talkies” when the concept of a “playback singer” had not been born. He acted in his own films–including the famous 1935 Devdas that has been since remade by countless Bollywood thespians. You may not know his work, but you know his legacy. He left a profound stylistic impact on the great singers of the Golden era that would follow (think Mukesh’s “Dil Jalta Hai” from Pehli Nazar to understand how hard these artists sought to emulate Saigal sahib)! Perhaps you recall the song playing in background of Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge (1995) as Simran’s father returned home–it was none other than K.L. Saigal’s “Gham Diye Mushtaqil,” meant to represent the traditions of an backward generation–but in my opinion that sells it unfairly short. K.L. Saigal’s masterpieces may seem old-fashioned now, but they were the hallmark of those who fought for civil rights and equality, who dreamed of romance and greater things than the dull lives they were trapped in, and who believed in a future better than their own. Perhaps his audience is not so different from today’s. Me, when I hear “Jab Dil Hi Toot Gaya“, I am always reminded of my grandparents who used to sing this song at the most unexpected moments–for in its words are not just the roots of Bollywood as we know it, but of our own traditions.

KL Saigal

K.L. Saigal (1904-1947) passed away at the age of 43 after years of struggling with alcoholism. Someone tell me he doesn’t look straight from a German Expressionist film here–look at those piercing eyes!

I hope I can convince you to open your mind to the world of Hindi cinema before the Golden Age–at least this once! I think Saigal sahib‘s depth will surprise you–and perhaps you’ll recognize in the soulful lyrics of Majrooh Sultanpuri the many reincarnations of a similar theme that followed. In Shahjehan (1946), K.L Saigal plays a rejected lover involved in a complicated royal coup that ultimately ends in both a happy marriage for him and the construction of the Taj Mahal for eternity. Intriguing, no? Our lyrics and English translation to “Jab Dil Hi Toot Gaya” are below. Follow along with the video, and do let us know your thoughts on this old school number in the comments!

Jab Dil Hi Toot Gaya Lyrics and Translation:

Jab dil hii TuuT gayaa
When my heart is broken
Ham jii ke kyaa kare.Nge?
What can I do by living?

Ulfat ka diyaa hamne is dil mei.N jalaayaa thaa
I lit the flame of love in my heart
Umiid ke phoolo.N se is ghar ko sajaayaa thaa
I decorated this house with the flowers of hope
Ek bhedii looT gaayaa
And one of my own stole everything
Ham jii ke kyaa kare.Nge?
What can I do by living?
Jab dil hii TuuT gayaa
When my heart is broken

Maaluum na thaa intii mushkil hai.N merii raahe.N
I was not aware that my paths would prove so difficult
Armaan ke bahe aa.Nsuu, hasrat ne bhari aahe.N
I shed tears of desire, unfulfilled wishes filled my sighs
Har saathii chhuuT gayaa
Every companion abandoned me
Ham jii ke kyaa kare.Nge?
What can I do by living?
Jab dil hii TuuT gayaa
When my heart is broken


ulfat: love; diyaa: flame, candle; umiid: hope; phool: flower; bhedi: an insider, one of your own; maalum: awareness; mushkil: difficult; armaan: desire; aa.Nsuu: tears; hasrat: unfulfilled wish; aah: sigh; saathii: companion

Did you know that at the age of 13, a young Mohammed Rafi actually met K.L. Saigal? According to a new biography, Rafi sahib got the chance to meet his idol at a K.L. Saigal concert in Lahore in which young Rafi spontaneously performed a Punjabi solo to the accolades of the crowd. K.L. Saigal was so impressed with the boy’s talent, he patted him on the head and declared he would be a great singer one day!

-Mrs. 55