We report the controlled variation of luminescence of ZnO nanostructures from intense ultraviolet to bright visible light. Deliberate addition of surfactants in the reaction medium not only leads to growth anisotropy of ZnO, but also alters the luminescence property. ZnO nanoclusters comprising of very fine particles with crystallite sizes ∼15–22 nm were prepared in a non-aqueous medium, either from a single alcohol or from their mixtures. Introduction of the aqueous solution of the surfactant helps in altering the microstructure of ZnO nanostructure to nanorods, nanodumb-bells as well as the luminescence property. The as-prepared powder material is found to be well crystallized. Defects introduced by the surfactant in aqueous medium play an important role in substantial transition in the optical luminescence. Chromaticity coordinates were found to lie in the yellow region of color space. This gives an impression of white light emission from ZnO nanocrystals, when excited by a blue laser. Oxygen vacancy is described as the major defect responsible for visible light emission as quantified by X-ray photoelectron spectroscopy and Raman analysis.