On Tuesday, Prime Minister Narendra Modi's eight-day tour of Central Asia takes him to Kazakhstan, a country with which India does not seem to share many cultural ties. There is one strong connection between the nations that often goes unnoticed, except to a small circle in Mumbai. Over the past nine years, Kazakhstan has been playing a crucial role in keeping Western classical music alive in the commercial capital.

The Symphony Orchestra of India – India’s only professional Western classical orchestra – was founded by Mumbai’s National Centre for the Performing Arts in 2006 under the leadership of acclaimed Kazakh violinist Marat Bisengaliev.

The orchestra, which performs two seasons a year in Mumbai, comprises a large number of musicians from Kazakhstan and other former Soviet countries. With Bisengaliev as its music director, the SOI has performed compositions by many of the biggest names in classical music as well as some famous opera productions.

From Kazakhstan to Mumbai

Bisengaliev, 53, was born in Kazakhstan when it was part of the USSR and trained in Moscow’s prestigious Tchaikovsky Conservatoire. He founded the Kazakh Chamber Orchestra in 1989, where he was the violin soloist. The orchestra toured Europe for the next few years and was re-assembled as the West Kazakhstan Philharmonic Orchestra in 1991.

In 2004, NCPA director Khushroo Suntook heard Bisengaliev’s orchestra perform in London and invited them to play in Mumbai. They eventually toured India three times, and as the association between Suntook and Bisengaliev grew thicker, the former proposed setting up a new orchestra that the NCPA director had envisioned for a long time.

In 2006, with a core team of musicians from Bisengaliev’s Kazakh orchestra, the NCPA established the Symphony Orchestra of India as the country’s first professional symphony orchestra since the 1950s.

From 1935 to 1955, violinist Mehli Mehta – father of renowned conductor Zubin Mehta – founded and led the Bombay Symphony Orchestra. India now has just a handful of amateur Western classical orchestras, of which the most prominent is the 52-year-old Bombay Chamber Orchestra, whose members are part-time musicians.

Bringing in more Indians

The Symphony Orchestra of India comprises full-time, professional musicians, but there is one difference – while India’s amateur orchestras predominantly consist of Indian musicians, the SOI has just a handful of Indian members.

As the orchestra’s music director, Bisengaliev sourced the majority of its musicians from Kazakhstan, other former Soviet republics, Russia and Britain. In its first concert season in 2006, nearly 80% of the members were Kazakh and almost none were Indian. The demographic shift over the past nine years has been slow: of the 100-odd musicians that perform in each concert season, less than 20 are usually Indian.

The NCPA attributes this gap to the lack of professionally-trained classical musicians in the country, but it has also been working to fill in the gap by training a new generation of Indian string, wind and brass players. Affiliated to the Symphony Orchestra of India, the NCPA runs a series of music classes for children and older musicians, taught by Russian teachers, with the aim of gradually increasing the number of Indians in the orchestra.

Bollywood connection

For now, however the Kazakh flavour runs strongly in the Symphony because of Bisengaliev’s leadership. In its latest concert season this February, for instance the orchestra played works that a Kazakh composer, Yerkesh Shakeyev, had written specially for Bisengaliev.

While it may seem strange for a Kazakh maestro to become a prominent personality in India’s small Western classical music circle, Bisengaliev’s country is no stranger to Indian culture. In a New York Times interview in 2011, he spoke fondly of Kazakhstan’s love for Bollywood. “We have a channel dedicated to Bollywood films that is very popular,” he had said. “My sister...knows the name of every actor. When I say that I met a Bollywood star, she gets very excited.”