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From The Times
February 2, 2008

Lilamani Kapoor nee Rajasooriya

Exotic exponent of south Indian dance who took Fifties Italy by storm and graced a glamorous social circle in London

Lilamani Kapoor

There was something of The Arabian Nights about Lilamani Kapoor's enchanting and exotic life, one through which this latterday Scheherazade seemed to float with her feet barely touching the ground. Cosseted from birth by wealth, blessed with talent as a dancer, surrounded by famous friends, she remained nonetheless the embodiment of unaffected simplicity.

Though fortified by her faith in happy endings, she was also frequently the daring architect of her own destiny. In the late 1940s she scandalised her native Ceylon by leaving her husband, the biscuit heir Nicky Seneviratne, for the Italian film director Giulio Petroni, whom she had met while both were employed by the island's nascent tourist board. As if being a divorced and working woman was not bad enough, theirs was an interracial union, and when Petroni tried to take her to whites-only venues such as Colombo's racecourse or smart hotels she was refused entry.

In 1951 they married and moved to Italy, where she enjoyed a stroke of fortune. Henri Cartier-Bresson had been commissioned by Epoca, an Italian magazine, to devote an issue to photographing Asia. He chose his portrait of Lilamani, a noted but unself-conscious beauty, for the cover. When her ship docked in Naples, her face was on newsstands all over Italy.

Thanks to her husband's showbusiness connections she soon became a star. From childhood she had studied Bharata Natyam, the classical religious dance of southern India, which combines elegant and rhythmic movement of the body with visual expression. She was considered a great exponent of the form, and now captivated Italy with her performances in its provincial theatres, the purveyors of mass entertainment to a country still largely without television. She often danced with Ram Gopal, the “Nijinsky of India”. Soon Lilamani was presenting a nightly arts programme on television - the first in a long line of foreign beauties to prosper in Italy in that medium - and was a fixture in Rome's dolce vita. Her friends included Marc Chagall, Jean-Paul Sartre, the priapic aristocrat Dado Ruspoli and Jean Cocteau, who painted her. She also had several minor roles in films, most notably as a maharani in Roman Holiday (1953). Marlon Brando was much taken by her and proposed marriage. When she turned him down, he moved on to her rival for the lead in The Mountain (1956), Anna Kashfi, who would bear him his son Christian (who died on January 26).

By now Lilamani's marriage to Petroni was foundering, and she was also distressed by the death of her daughter by her first husband, who had come to live in Rome. While working for the Indian Embassy she accepted the offer of going for a drive with a handsome young man she had met on the building's steps: he turned out to be the evening's guest of honour, Shiv Kapoor, a wealthy shipowner from a princely family in Assam. They married in 1958 and settled in London.

Although disappointed at having to give up her dancing, for which her husband perceived there was not an audience in Fifties England, they shared a common interest in the Indian arts (though only English as a language). They were also a prominent social couple, whose friends ranged from sporting peers to Stephen Spender and Princess Margaret's set. At one stage the Queen was said to be thinking of buying their country home, Buckhurst Park, near Ascot, as a wedding gift for her sister. Instead it was acquired by King Hussein of Jordan, although not before featuring in 1959 in the first Whicker's World programme.

The Kapoors also commissioned a futuristic house at Virginia Water, Surrey, made just from stone and wood. This they later let to Diana Dors, and it became the scene of bacchanalian parties before the actress decamped, owing thousands to them in rent.

The half-Tamil, half-Sinhalese daughter of a family with extensive interests in tea and Colombo's docks, Lilamani Rajasooriya was born at Kadugannawa, near Kandy, in 1927. She was educated at a convent, which gave her a lifelong hatred of nuns, and then eased into an arranged marriage to her first husband. Following the birth of her two sons, the Kapoors moved to Switzerland for tax reasons and then, in the Rolls-Royce Silver Cloud, back to Rome in the late Sixties. There Lilamani Kapoor was at her happiest, as part of a bohemian circle of jet-setters, becoming especially close to Steve McQueen.

Despite the style in which she lived, she - in common with many rich people in the post-Fascist Italy of the Fifties - had seen no contradiction in becoming sympathetic to communism. Generous of spirit, optimistic and never judgmental, she was also perhaps a touch naive at times, and in 1966 this led to her playing a part in orchestrating the escape from prison of the communist spy George Blake. She signed a deal to write a book about this, but was advised that it would not be in her best interests to publish.

Yet if what struck people was her vivacity and the charm of her smile, she was also intelligent and determined, and in the 1970s she successfully extricated her brother from prison in Sri Lanka during the insurgency.

Later she concentrated on charity work, and on holding court at the Dorchester, to where she would bring Asian friends to meet Barbara Cartland, whose chaste tales of romance suited her view of life.

In recent years, Parkinson's disease had made her more reclusive, although she derived great comfort from her Buddhist beliefs.

Shiv Kapoor died in 1987. Her sons survive her.

Lilamani Kapoor, dancer, was born on July 26, 1927. She died on December 27, 2007, aged 80