He’s sold hundreds of millions of records but many Australians haven’t heard of him. A.R. Rahman – a legend in Bollywood who crossed into Hollywood with his soundtrack to Slumdog Millionaire – will headline the inaugural Asia-Pacific Triennial of Performing Arts festival in Melbourne, performing an exclusive selection of his music alongside the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra.

Rahman is just one of many coups for the festival. For the first time the National Ballet of China will perform its most popular work, The Red Detachment of Women, in Australia. It’s the ballet about the Cultural Revolution that US president Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger saw when they visited in 1972. “There are no tutus in the is one,” says Asia TOPA creative director Stephen Armstrong.

With a multi-million dollar budget from the Sidney Myer Fund, various government bodies and participating organisations, the festival is the result of collaborations between many of our biggest cultural institutions – led by the Arts Centre and including the National Gallery of Victoria and the Australian Ballet – and an enormous range of program partners such as the Melbourne, Sydney and Perth festivals and the Next Wave festival.

Primarily a performing arts festival, it’s an ambitious attempt to redress the lack of cultural diversity on our stages, and to foster stronger cultural ties with our neighbours.

“The big question that we asked at the beginning of the process was, ‘why are there not works written by, composed by, made by living resident [and international] Asian artists on our main stages?'” Armstrong says. “Occasionally there are – with a company like Malthouse, which has worked with some really high-profile Asian directors – but we don’t see symphonic work, we don’t see ballets, we don’t see plays.”

The collaborative approach has spawned a festival of contemporary events that is “bigger than we’d imagined”, says Armstrong. It will attract more than 350 artists and “thought leaders” over four months from India, Japan, China, Indonesia, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand, Taiwan and beyond. Almost half of the program of 60 events comprises new works.

Events range from high-profile acts like Rahman and the National Ballet of China, to some – like acclaimed Thai choreographer Pichet Klunchun​ – that may never have been seen in Australia (or in their home country) for lack of funding.

There is Kakushin,​ from Japan, who plays traditional music of the haunting biwa, but mixes it up with contemporary collaborations. Indonesian filmmaker Garin Nugroho – whom some have compared to Quentin Tarantino – brings a new film, Satan Jawa, that will be screened with a live score performance from the MSO and a 20-piece gamelan orchestra.

And to top it all off, a five-night program called XO State, curated by Chunky Move founder Gideon Obarzanek and Filipina choreographer Eisa Jocson​ will transform the State Theatre – its extravagant red and gold decor usually reserved for the opera or ballet – into a kind of underground club where the audience sits (or stands) on stage with a changing line-up of musical, digital and performing acts.

Full program available at asiatopa.com.au.