Design Research

Nature of Project : Ethnography ( Academic )
Project Year : 2012
Designed for : National Institute of Design
Time taken : 2 Months

Ethnography is the systematic study of people and cultures . An ethnographer observes society from the point of view of the subject of the study. ( Wikipedia )

Traditional ethnography takes place in the native environment of the focus groups and the studies generally prolong for years. Ethnography methodology in a design practice borrows few characteristics of traditional ethnography and is excecuted for shorter period of time with a specific research question.


In short Ethnography is a people centric, story based, pattern finding methodology to gather insights, which in turn feeds into a product.


Research question :
To understand the aural life world of a social group or a community, which could comprehend their lived experiences of aural landscapes & make meaning of sounds which are meaningful the group or the community. After interpretation and synthesis, the findings were to be mapped and converted to a tangible artefact.


Social group selected :
Iyers [1] ( Temple pandits or pujari’s ) in Shree Balamurugan Devasthanam in Ahmedabad.


Output expected :
Comprehensive ethnographic report with insights/patterns and a physical artefact that translates the findings in the research.


The temple consisted of members who were not a part of the social group, yet it becomes important to understand the secondary participants and the dynamics of the relationship between them and the focus group.

Power Dynamics



Temple Map

The ethnographic report is an intensive 100+ page document. To make insights’ access easier, the research findings are represented as a short story.


 A Happy Family 

Shankaran is the senior person of the family. He graduated two years back from a Paatasalai in Tanjore. He performs the duty of taking care of the Balamurugan Devasthanam where the main God is Lord Murugan. Shankaran has two other people in the family who assist him his daily work of taking care of the Temple. Those were Sudharsan and Ramakrishnan who are recent graduates from the same paatasalai. They joined the family recently a couple of months back. Shankaran took over charge of the temple when the new one’s joined and elder iyer had left the temple.Committee members are the owners of the house (Temple) but it is Shankaran and his Juniors who make it a home (Bring life to the place ). The juniors address Shankaran as “Periyavar”, which means someone elder and respectful in Tamil.

Each of the family members have their individual defined role of taking care of different sannathi’s [2] . Ramakrishnan takes care of the Vinayagar sannathi. Sudharsan takes care of the Shivan Sannathi and Shankaran takes care of the main Murugan Sannathi. Their Sannathi Gods are their beloved special kids they take care of. Their entire day’s activity is planned around looking after these children. These children are not the usual one. In a typical family the parents shape their children. But here, the children are special; here the children are one to who shape the iyer’s life in return for their care. But even here in some way or the other the objective of the family is the same, to groom the children for the world. The more well groomed the children are more happy the family is (i.e) the Gods are their source of their living in their life

A day in temple

The family’s’ typical days activity starts early morning around 5:00 where the family has employed people to clean the House (Temple) and it is open for the people from morning 7 am. The very first task of family members to wake their children up. A morning Pooja takes place, where the three Iyers perform a small pooja in their corresponding sannathis. Then they wait for people to come and visit their children (Gods). When a visitor is at the sannithi, the presence of the visitor is deducted by the sannathi Mani he rings. Since the house is small the family members recognise the bell sound from thier respective sannithi’s. The sound of the sannithi mani indicates that someone has come to see their child and the thier presence is required. When a sannithi mani rings, the iyer comes running to the sanctum to address the visitor. The slokas hymned by the Iyers are believed to draw the attention of the God to see the visitor at the temple. The sound of the sannithi mani is intense. It is a bell which is placed at a higher altitude than the average human height.The visitor will have raise his hand above to ring the bell. The mani’s sound is an intense one time stroke whose echoes are heard throughout the temple. On special request, Iyer’s performs archanai (Special Pooja) in the visitor’s name. At the end of the archanai, the vistor offers dakshana ( money ) of his will to the iyer. The dakshana, that the family members collect from thier sannithis are their main source of individual income which they save for themselves. This money the visitor offers for seeing their child is what the Iyers make their meaning out of their life (i.e) all the knowledge, mantras, chanting and the years of study in paatasalai is converted for this money which in turns gives them food and life. The entire situation feels like a implicit dialogue between the God and the Iyer’s “I shall take care of you and you shall take care of me”. The sannithi Mani and the sound of it feeds the family member’s body and their materialistic life in this world through the dakshana (money) it brings

The family is involved in common activities like preparing for special functions celebrated for the different Gods which is considered auspicious and a lot of people come to visit the Temple during these days. The family members come together to prepare for the special day. On these auspicious days’, the visitors witness a well dressed idol. One the special day the the family members gather front of the main sannithi to perform the pooja. The senior (periyavar) takes the lead and performs the pooja and one of the juniors help him with the task of getting the things to his hand while the pooja is performed and the other junior stands outside the sannathi facing the people who have come to visit their child with a hand bell which is rung continuously throughout the period of the pooja. This mani produces the sound back and forth and is completely occupied through out the pooja and since the size of the bell is not as huge as a the sannathi Mani both the intensity and the echo of the bell is comparatively less. All the family members recite special mantras to  make the child (God) happy both on behalf of them and the public who have come to see their child. The entire act of the special pooja is a performance where the family members act together to glorify the God to the people who come to visit. The periyavar stays close to the child and the juniors help him in getting the stuff required for the senior to perform the pooja. All the mantras recited synchronously by all the three people. The pronunciation of the mantras are consciously made sure that they are without mistakes because they recite both for themselves and the people who have come to see them. The more synchronous they recite the mantras the more effective the performance is and the family members make sure that they recite it properly by nodding their head whenever there are words that are to be stressed. The family members fear that when the mantras not pronounced correctly, Rudrans ( invisible Gods from Shivas world who are armed) might harm them. Rudrans stay in the surroundings all the time and they take care of the good and the bad that they do in their life and they have the power to harm they do something sinful. Improper pronunciation of the mantras is a sin. The family believes in good (puniyam) and bad (paap) (i.e) the family believes that there is one right way of doing all the things or a singular truth. The proper pronunciation of the mantra helps the family members to take care of their spiritual life (soul) or the life after death where your paap and puniyam is calculated and taken into account. The more puniyam you save the happier your afterlife is.

During the normal days the family members take rest from 12pm -4pm during which they go their own individual worlds where they have their own way of leading their life and having fun. They are like any other person when they are outside the house (temple). They watch televisions, buy new movie CD’s and watch, hangout in the night for dinner, go for shopping an purchase new dress. But this happy life is because of the income generated from the people who come to visit their children. The happier their children are happier these people are in their personal life. Like any other person these family members also have their own personal gadgets but which during family time (By family time I mean the time they spend inside the temple for the common purpose) their personal life is muted (this interpretation is from the observation that whenever they speak about their personal entertainment like using a gadget or watching a movie in the Television their voice goes down) or kept in silence for the fact that they are in a responsible position of connecting with the special child which in general not associated with the kind of entertainment media these people enjoy in their personal life failing which might disturb the people who come to visit the temple. To put in a context the family members cannot loudly discuss about the Singham surya movie, which he watch last night in the television or browsing Facebook publicly in thier phone. Their gadgets are put in silent and are used inside the temple with at atmost carefulness. Though the family members enjoy all the entertainment they do not speak or discuss about it causally, inside the temple.

Significant sounds and meanings


Sannathi Mani :

The association of Sannathi Mani with the money they recieve from the visitor is translated in the form of artefact. Inspired by the traditional wind chime I created an artefact, which contains Ten Rupee coins and small bells. When a person moves his hands along the bells and coins they interact with each other to produce sound. The essence of their association with the money and the bell is expressed as sound.


Glossary :

[1] Iyer – Pandits in the temple

[2] Sannithi – The sanctum of the God’s idol

[3] Nadai – Entrance of the temple

[4] Daskhan – Money offered by a temple visitor to the Iyers