The Plastic Mahal (Palace of Plastic) is a temporary public sculpture and political performance in the mode of a processional ritual that appears in various sites across the city of Mumbai. The plastic Mahal, built from the city’s plastic waste, aggregates in the informal recycling centre in Dharavi’s 13th Compound. It is made in the collective mode of self-construction that is visible throughout the informal settlements of Indian cities. Created together with the waste workers of the 13th Compound and individual recyclers, the temporary structure is a celebration of the livelihoods of all those working in Mumbai’s waste management chain and their handling of the city’s plastic waste.
The unique context of working in this way with people employed in the informal waste management of the city is that the very process of waste picking, collecting and recycling operates outside of state interference or support, it happens in spite of a municipal drive for a “cleaner greener Mumbai’. In this instance the confrontation with state power is a political act that challenges the invisibility of waste work and the social status of those individuals who handle waste. The vital contribution made by informal waste recovery through the self-organised recycling sector remains undervalued and largely invisible, echoing the marginalized and disposable status of the extremely poor workers that sustain it. As a process of visibilization, Plastic Mahal challenges received notions of disposable products, materials and people, advocating for the work of informal recyclers as essential and valued labour within wider systems of production and consumption. It asks, what can such a performance of plastic communicate to its participants, and to spectators – about the survival of Mumbai’s urban poor and as a way to deal with urban and ecological crises?
Combining the role of ritual and traditional street procession the process of making plastic mahal is about creating new stories, new symbols and symbolic action, as a means of talking about the informal sector of waste management and the infrastructural collisions in the city of Mumbai that excludes, repels and eradicates as it rapidly develops. At the same time, it aims to challenge public perceptions of the politics of human disposability - the negative perception / marginalisation of informal labour, in particular the social class of those handling waste materials and human sanitation seen as disposable.
The temporal dimension as well as material cycle mean the plastic mahal (as anti-monument) is reabsorbed into the production of new consumer goods. It combines the permanence of plastic itself with the radical impermanence of its recomposition (at the end of the performances, the plastic temple is returned to the 13th compound and recycled).
Compound 13 LAB
The co-design and co-creation process of Plastic Mahal takes place at the Compound 13 Lab.e Creating together with the recycling godowns of the 13th Compound and individual recyclers, the plastic mahal will be an assemblage of knowledges, imaginaries and individual narratives that tell the story of waste work in Dharavi. Temporarily postponed due to Covid-19 pandemic the project awaits reactivation when circumstances permit.
The project is delivered in partnership with Acorn Foundation and supported by the artist/designer/engineer residency programme at Compound 13 Lab, led by co-curators Graham Jeffery, Ben Parry and Sharmila Samant. The Lab is an emergent ‘maker space’ in an area of Mumbai that might be described as one of the largest informal aggregations of (re)maker and (re)manufacturing spaces on the planet. Compound 13 Lab offers young people access to current technologies in digital media, music, 3D design and printing, and is intended to be an experimental learning space where issues of work, waste and survival in the 21st Century can be explored.
This discussion of informal waste management, the biopolitics of disposability and the knowledge assemblages of waste recycling are explored in more detail in the book: Jeffery, G and Parry, B (2021) Waste Work: The Art of Survival in Dharavi. Wunderkammer Press
 Gill, K. (2010) Of Poverty and Plastic: scavenging and scrap-trading entrepreneurs in India’s urban informal economy, Oxford: Oxford University Press
 Bauman, Z. (2004) Wasted Lives: Modernity and its Outcasts, Cambridge: Polity Press